New shoes, new friends, new germs. It's a rite of passage from summer to fall that your kids have to fight every year. The back-to-school sniffles affect seemingly every child, as little mouths, hands and noses provide excellent breeding grounds and points of exchange. Since the children can't be trusted to look after their own hygiene, it's up to you, parents, to do it for them.
The consensus on how to avoid germs is to follow a few basic precautions. Regular hand washing with soap and water - especially around meals and after visiting the restroom - will kill bugs as effectively as anything. Special, more expensive antibacterial soaps are not necessary, according to Dr. Lisa Morici, an assistant professor at Tulane University's Department of Microbiology and Immunology, New Orleans. She recommends a sanitizing hand lotion if sinks aren't available; many schools now keep bottles of lotion standard in classrooms. Along with keeping hands washed, Dr. Morici emphasizes staying up-to-date on your child's vaccinations.
More tips to avoid the germs:
Older kids who participate in physical education or extracurricular sports at school should always shower after such activities and should not share practice jerseys or other equipment.
For younger children, take advantage of the sick season by making it a learning experience. "It's a great time to teach them the practices of good hygiene," Dr. Ohl says.
Make sure your kids aren't sharing food or writing utensils, two items that tend to find their way into multiple mouths and sets of hands.
Body temperature is a convenient metric to determine if your child is ill, but also watch out for changes in personality such as fatigue or reticence. If your child normally bounces off the walls and suddenly only wants to lounge on the couch, it may be a sign something is amiss.
Lots of sleep and a healthy diet strengthen those young, vulnerable immune systems.
"It is imperative that parents understand the importance of vaccination," Dr. Morici says. "The recent multi-state outbreak of measles is an example of how complacency or fear of vaccination can lead to the emergence and spread of serious childhood diseases."
Dr. Christopher Ohl, an associate professor of medicine at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C., who specializes in infectious diseases, also emphasizes the importance of vaccinations, especially in light of the swine flu pandemic. More than half of swine flu cases, he says, have been pediatric.
"The kids really are the Petri plates we send to school and day care and they bring them back to us," he says. In other words, keeping your kids healthy may play a major role in keeping you healthy, since you will be exposed to any microbial friends your children make at school.
When symptoms of a contagious disease develop, don't be afraid to hold your child out of school. You'll be doing everyone else a favor. Then, Dr. Morici says, notify your student's teacher so he or she can monitor any similar symptoms that might appear in other students.
"This can help prevent further transmission and potentially prevent an outbreak," she says.
Dr. Ohl endorses a two-step decision-making process when your kids get sick. First, decide if they need to stay home from school. Any fever, he says, is enough to keep them home. Next, use your best judgment to determine if a visit to the doctor is necessary.
"If a child seems more severely ill than normal, particularly after getting [medicine]...then that would be the time to take them to see the pediatrician or go to the emergency room," he says. Dr. Ohl recommends allowing your children 24 hours of rest after a fever breaks before sending them back to school.
If your child comes down with a case of the flu, make sure a caregiver is around at all times. That can mean asking a relative or friend to keep watch for a day while you are at work. You can also investigate whether your workplace has a work-at-home program so you can nurse your children without falling behind or taking your own sick days at work. If no program has been instituted, Dr. Ohl says to check with your human resources department to request one.