The reduced driving speed in school zones, the weekday yellow bus rodeo, and the sudden lack of office supplies around town are all harbingers of the annual cold and flu season. It doesn’t matter whether kids are entering kindergarten, elementary, middle, or high school – they are all fair game when it comes to the yearly onslaught of pernicious germs.
While there are some differences in how colds, influenza, and other contagions are commonly spread amongst various demographics, the bottom line is that most germs are equal opportunity players in need a viable host (meaning whoever they land on) to get the party started.
Renowned pediatrician, parenting expert, author and educator, Harley Rotbart, M.D., has extensively covered the topic of germ-proofing kids for many years and contends, “schools are truly ‘ground zero’ for infectious disease transmission, because schools are both amplifiers of personal and community infections, as well as potential original sources of infections”.1
The amplifier effect refers to what happens when an infection enters a school from the community and then rapidly escalates by spreading among a highly susceptible and concentrated population of kids. Dr. Rotbart further explains that schools can also be original sources of infection as may have been the case with the superbug MRSA (Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus)2 in the last decade.
Humans are born with underdeveloped immune systems that evolve over a lifetime3, however, elementary school children lack exposure to germs. Therefore, until their immune systems get built up, they are the ultimate cootie-collectors, averaging eight to twelve colds or cases of the flu each school year, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For the older kids, it is about half that.
What can I do to prevent illness in my family?
It appears that the key is prevention. What follows are some useful tips in helping your kids avoid the seasonal plague-fest as it commences.
- Wash your hands. Handwashing with soap is widely seen as the most effective way to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria – and avoid infections. If your kids are small, here’s a great link to engender effective hand-washing hygiene. It includes glitter, so it must be good. Whatever age children are, encourage frequent hand-washing with soap and water. Include hand sanitizer in backpacks or lunch boxes, but avoid “antibacterial” products!
- Make sure all immunizations are current. Protect your family by getting your flu shot during the upcoming influenza season. Check out this link for a free Family Flu Guide from the CDC about vaccines and alternative measures.
- Keep sick kids at home. It seems like a no-brainer, but it is not always easy for working parents to stay home every time their child coughs, sneezes, or blows nasal snot-bubbles. Be prepared ahead of time with a contingency plan for coverage with other friends or relatives. A sick child needs to stay home until they have been symptom-free for 24 hours in order to not spread the cheer around school – and don’t forget, fevers tend to run higher at night than during the day.
- Teach children proper techniques for sneezing and coughing safely. According to the CDC, flu and other serious respiratory illnesses are spread by coughing or sneezing into your hands. Using a tissue, turning your face in towards your elbow, and practicing consistent and frequent hand-washing can help prevent the spread of germs. Visit this link for fun lessons on how to cough and sneeze for very young children.
- Wash or wipe down the backpacks and school supplies occasionally. Backpacks and purses are bacterial breeding grounds that also have the potential to carry fecal matter. Enough said.
- Encourage plenty of exercise and fresh air. Research has shown that regular, moderate physical activity increases the immune response4. Another benefit is that regular exercise will help kids sleep better.
- Keep kids hydrated. Ingesting fluids such as water, juice, sports drinks, and soup can help germy little bodies stay hydrated. Warm liquids like soup and tea have the added benefit of helping ease pain from a sore throat. Water is especially important to replenish lost body fluids and prevent dehydration when there is fever involved.
- Make sure kids get plenty of sleep. Sleeping is the time when the body repairs itself. A chronic lack of sleep can adversely affect the immune system meaning decreased resistance to colds and flu. The recommended amount of sleep for school-age children is as follows:
- 9 to 12 hours per 24 hours for 6-12 years of age
- 8 to 10 hours per 24 hours is advised for 13-18 years of age5
Kids returning to school is always an exciting time for families. Being prepared for the inevitable illnesses that often follow is the best way to reduce the down time and help prevent the spread of cooties in your cohort. Be sure to consult your medical provider with all of your questions.
- Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus