A new school year brings new classes, new teachers and reunions with friends after summer break. But if you've ever noticed that the school year also brings increased sniffles, coughs and colds, you're not alone.
"When lots of children are confined in close spaces for long periods of time, everyone's germs are shared," says Michael Lee, M.D., pediatrician with Children's Health℠ and Associate Professor at UT Southwestern. "These 'germs' are mostly viruses and can linger on classroom desks, tables or doorknobs for fellow students to be exposed to."
If your child is repeatedly sick since starting school, you may be experiencing what many parents refer to as the "back-to-school plague." Colds, coughs, stomach bugs and pink eye (conjunctivitis) are among the most common viruses spread at school. Children can also spread bacterial infections, including impetigo (an infection of the skin) and strep throat. Preventing COVID‑19 is now also a worry for parents. During late fall through early spring, parents should also look for signs of the flu virus, which can spread quickly.
There's no secret formula to keep kids from getting sick, but there are steps that parents and caregivers can take to prevent illness when kids go back to school.
How can I keep my child from getting sick at school?
Regular hand washing is the best way to prevent the spread of germs and keep your child healthy. Children (and adults) should wash their hands:
- After sneezing or blowing their nose
- After touching doorknobs, desks and handrails
- After using the bathroom
- Before and after eating
It's important to teach your child proper hand washing steps, including scrubbing their hands for at least 20 seconds or as long as it takes to sing "Happy Birthday." If soap and water aren't available, your child can use a 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer to clean their hands. Consider clipping a small bottle to your child's backpack for easy access.
It's also important to teach your child good hygiene and show them how to properly cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow. Respiratory infections can easily spread through airborne droplets.
Wearing a mask and getting vaccinated also helps stop the spread of respiratory viruses like COVID-19 and the flu. A mask can also help prevent the common cold. If you wear a mask, make sure you have a process for regularly cleaning them at home, whether that is throwing them into the laundry after use or hand washing them in soap and water.
See more information on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
How can I boost my child's immune system?
The immune system is what our bodies use to fight infection. Dr. Lee offers four tips to keep a child's immune system healthy and help avoid common school illnesses.
1. Make sure your child gets the recommended amount of sleep
Sleep needs vary by age, but research shows that lack of sleep can affect the immune system and its ability to fight infection.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 10 to 13 hours each day for preschoolers and 9 to 12 hours daily for children between the ages of 6 and 12. Teens should get 8 to 10 hours of sleep each day. Children who nap can count that sleep toward their daily sleep total. See seven tips for adjusting sleep schedules for school.
Help your child get the sleep they need by enforcing an age-appropriate bedtime. You should also provide them with an environment designed for sleep. It should be cool, dark, quiet and free of screens. For younger children, a bedtime routine can help them settle into sleep more easily.
2. Keep stress at a minimum
Getting the proper amount of sleep can help alleviate stress, but there are other ways to keep your child stress-free. Check in with children before the school year starts to see how they're feeling. Addressing any concerns or nerves will ease their mind about what's ahead.
Watch out for warning signs of anxiety, such as changes in sleep, eating or behavior. Consult a mental health professional if needed. Even with busy schedules, giving kids plenty of free time is important. Allow your child to choose their extracurricular activities and set realistic expectations around athletics, activities and schoolwork. Follow these tips to help your child find balance.
3. Stay up to date with your child's vaccinations
Vaccines help children develop immunity to several serious diseases and infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends necessary vaccinations and publishes a schedule for parents and doctors to follow.
During the winter months, the flu vaccine is especially important. It is the best way to prevent the flu virus.
"Influenza, or the flu, can be easily transmitted at school," says Dr. Lee. "Vaccines can help to prevent this virus from spreading." Find more information about recommended vaccines for children.
Similarly, the best way to prevent the spread of COVID‑19 is for everyone eligible to get the COVID‑19 vaccine. You can also check if your child is eligible for a COVID‑19 booster shot.
4. Offer healthy food choices
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for everyone, especially for growing kids and busy students. Offering options from all five food groups provides the right mix of vitamins, minerals and nutrients needed to stay healthy. Additionally, avoiding added sugar and sugary beverages can lower the risk of disease in the long run.
Some immune-boosting options include:
- Fruits and vegetables – many are loaded with vitamin C. See some dietitian-approved tricks to encourage kids to eat more vegetables.
- Yogurt – probiotics found in yogurt promote good digestive health.
- Whole grains and healthy, lean proteins help fuel and provide energy for active children.
What should I do if my child is sick?
Despite your best efforts, your child may still get sick. If your child shows signs of being sick, keep them home from school to avoid spreading germs and potential viruses. You should keep your child home when they have any of the following symptoms:
If your child has symptoms of COVID‑19 or has been in close contact with someone who has COVID-19, they should stay home and get tested. It's helpful to have a plan in place so you know what to do if your child has to stay home from school at any point. You can also research COVID-19 testing locations ahead of time, so you know where to go if you need quick access to testing.
"A child's body needs rest and time to heal," says Dr. Lee. "Keeping a sick child home gives their immune system a chance to do its work. You'll also keep your child from spreading illness to others."
Prevent back to school sickness in kids by prioritizing bedtime, teaching kids to wash hands regularly, eating healthy and avoiding overscheduling. Get more tips from experts @Childrens.
Children's Health is committed to remaining a trusted source of health information and care for you and your family. See more back-to-school resources to help keep your child healthy at the Children's Health Back to School Hub.
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