A new school year brings new classes, new teachers and happy reunions with friends after the summer break. But if you've ever noticed that the school year also brings increased sniffles and coughs, 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., a 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 always 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. During late fall through early spring, parents should also look for signs of the flu virus, which can spread quickly.
There's no one secret formula to keep kids from getting sick, but there are a few things parents and caregivers can do 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. 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 also important to teach your child good hygiene and show your child how to properly cough or sneeze into a tissue or their elbow. Respiratory infections can easily spread through airborne droplets.
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.
2. Keep stress at a minimum
Getting the proper amount of sleep can help to 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 they have will ease their mind about what's ahead.
Even with busy schedules, it's important to give kids plenty of free time. Allow your child to choose their own extracurricular activities and set realistic expectations around athletics, activities and school work. 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 a number of 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.
"Influenza, or the flu, can be easily transmitted at school," says Dr. Lee. "Vaccines can help to prevent it." Find more information about recommended vaccines for children.
4. Offer healthy food choices
Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is important for everyone – but 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.
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 proteins help provide fuel and energy for active children
What should I do if my child is sick?
Despite your best efforts, your child may still get sick. The best thing to do is to keep a sick child home from school, especially if they have a fever or symptoms of a stomach virus.
"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." Learn when to keep kids home and when to let them return to school.
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