Stay Healthier at School: Five Non-COVID Back-to-School Illnesses

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By Lisa Marinelli Smith for Sentara Health

All students are taught when they are young to share, but especially for little kids, that also means sharing plenty of colds, the flu and other germs. The world has been so focused on COVID the past few years, that a reminder of the signs and symptoms of other common viruses can be helpful. When students head back to school, parents and pediatricians notice a spike in contagious diseases common among kids and teens.

“We see several reasons for this,” explains Sentara pediatrician Akpomevigho Avbovbo, M.D. “Kids are in close contact with each other indoors in classrooms. Younger kids, especially, are developing their immune system, making them more susceptible.”

Some germs, such as cold and flu viruses, stick to surfaces longer than others. It’s important for kids to learn the importance of cleaning their hands with soap and water or hand sanitizer after they cough or blow their nose to help prevent germs from spreading. And to clean their hands before they eat.

As we head back to school, here are five common illnesses to be aware of:

Colds

Such a common illness can make kids (and adults) feel miserable! Cold viruses are spread through the air and by touching contaminated objects. If your child has a cold without significant problems, the symptoms should go away slowly after seven to 10 days.

Call your pediatrician if your school-age child develops breathing trouble, congestion or runny nose lasting longer than 10 days, a cough that lasts longer than a week, ear pain or a fever over 102.

Asthma and Allergy Flare-ups

For kids who have asthma, back-to-school time can exacerbate their condition. The increase in colds is one reason. Another is new exposure to contaminants in school — such as dust mites, mold, or chemicals — that can cause allergies or asthma flare-ups.

Ragweed is a major culprit for asthma flare-ups in the fall. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, asthma attacks spike throughout September during ragweed season. Talk to your pediatrician about planning ahead so your child is already on allergy medication before the season strikes in full.

Stomach Flu

Technically, this is known as gastroenteritis, causing an upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea. A virus is usually to blame. When children throw up, they can become dehydrated and may need electrolyte or oral rehydration solutions. Most cases of stomach flu resolve in 24-48 hours. Students must wait 24 hours after they last vomited to return to school.

Influenza (Flu)

The influenza virus causes the flu. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children (0-17 years) are the most susceptible age group for getting the flu.

The flu virus spreads through tiny droplets when infected people cough, sneeze, or talk. People can also get sick by touching an object an infected person has touched and then touching their nose, mouth, or eyes.

Annual flu shots are the most effective way to prevent the spread of the flu. The CDC recommends people be vaccinated by the end of October. It takes about two weeks after vaccination for the body to develop antibodies that protect against the flu.

Antiviral drugs can shorten the duration of the flu and prevent complications, but they are most effective if started within two days of getting sick.

Pink Eye

Also known as conjunctivitis, pink eye occurs when the clear tissue covering the white part of the eye is infected. If it’s caused by bacteria or a virus, pink eye is contagious. Pink eye spreads when someone touches an object that has been contaminated by someone with pink eye. It can also be spread through handshakes and even coughing and sneezing.

Prescription antibiotic eye drops can clear up pink eye caused by bacteria. If eyes are tearing and pink, the child is still contagious.

If you suspect your child is sick with any of these conditions, please contact your child’s pediatrician.

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