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Dodging the back-to-school bugs

September 20, 2016 | UCI Health
Dodging back-to-school germs

The kids are back in school and you know what that means: homework and friends are not the only things they may bring home. All too often, they also fetch illnesses such as stomach viruses and the flu that tend to crop up this time of the year. Once in your home, these germs can spread and infect your entire family.

Yet there are steps you can take to prevent these illnesses and, if someone does get sick, to keep them from taking over your household.

Dr. Roxann Engle, a family medicine physician with UCI Health – Yorba Linda, shares how to protect your children — and yourself — from back-to-school bugs.

Why are school classrooms such germ factories?

It is really a combination of crowded classrooms, poor ventilation and children’s habits. A lot of schools have 30 or more children per classroom, so there is close contact. Depending on the school, the ventilation system might not be pushing out old air and drawing in fresh air, or it may be recirculating air that someone has been coughing viruses and bacteria into.

Plus, children are not always good at covering their mouths and noses when they cough or sneeze. Combine these with the fact that we have cold and flu circulating all winter long in the population, and you have ripe conditions for spreading germs.

What common illnesses tend to "come home” from school?

There are about seven that we see in school-age children:

  • Strep throat
  • Pink eye
  • Fifth disease (also known as “slapped cheek syndrome” because of the red rash on the cheeks)
  • Hand-foot-and-mouth disease
  • Impetigo
  • Head lice
  • Meningococcal meningitis, which is dangerous but less common

There has been some talk recently about leprosy because of the two suspected cases in a Riverside County elementary school. That’s also pretty rare, but you can get it through close contact. If a child has leprosy, the bacteria will be present in any secretions from his or her nose. So if someone with an open wound such as a cut or scrape comes in contact with those secretions, he or she might get leprosy. The good news is that leprosy can be treated very easily with common antibiotics.

What about chickenpox and measles?

Personally, in the last 10 years I haven’t seen any cases of chickenpox, because so many children have been vaccinated. It’s the same with measles. Unlike a few decades or more ago, when it was common for kids to be sent home with chickenpox or the measles, we now only see a few cases. Most of those are from small sections of our society that have chosen not to vaccinate their children.

How can I keep my child from catching these illnesses?

Teach them to wash their hands and to do it frequently. Another big thing is to make sure they don’t share food or drinks with other children. A lot of kids do that — you know, “have a bite of my cookie” — and, unfortunately, if that child is ill, he or she can transmit germs to a best friend.

Also do the basic things that optimize your children’s immune system, such as:

You also want to ensure they are up-to-date on vaccines for things such as whooping cough and that they get flu shots.

If my child catches something, how can I protect myself and other family members?

All family members should wash their hands and avoid touching their faces to prevent the spread of germs. Replace your bathroom hand towel with disposable paper towels, so family members don’t transfer germs through sharing a towel. Preventing transmission of things like pink eye or impetigo is really a matter of personal space where you avoid close contact. With head lice, you have to get rid of all the lice and eggs (nits) from your child and your home.

Also make sure that all family members eat and sleep well and, where appropriate, are up-to-date on their vaccinations. School-age children will bring flu and whooping cough home to mom and dad, so that’s a good reason to have yourself vaccinated (flu and whooping cough) as well.

If people in your household are elderly or have a chronic illness — such as asthma, diabetes, or heart disease — or a compromised immune system, they are likely to experience a much more severe case of influenza. So those family members should consider getting a flu shot.

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