School Is Back…and So Are the Germs!


School is about to start once again and kids are back in the classroom.  This means that they are also back in close contact with each other.  Close contact means that what little Johnny has can easily spread to little Mary and little Zachary.  Parents need to be aware of the common conditions that can and do spread from child to child to child.  Unfortunately, several of these are not pleasant to talk about, much less see in your child.  It is important, however, to be aware that children are at risk because of the close proximity they have with one another in a school situation.

One organism that breeds quickly in classrooms is the head louse.  It causes an itchy infestation that spreads rapidly among preschool children attending daycare, elementary school children and the family members who share a home with them.  It is spread by direct contact with the hair of an infected person.  Although uncommon, it can be spread by clothing and other personal items.  There are several shampoos available that attack the problem.

Another condition that can be spread quickly from child to child is tinea capitis or ringworm of the scalp.  It can be acquired by direct contact with the area of ringworm on the body or by touching items such as combs, hats, or clothing that have been used by an individual with ringworm.  It can also be spread by pets, particularly cats.  It can be treated by shampoos and oral medication.

Hand, foot, and mouth disease (HRMD) is an acute viral illness that typically affects children younger than 5 years old but is not uncommon in children as old as 10.  Symptoms include skin rash, blister-like sores in the mouth and fever.  It is spread from person to person by direct contact with saliva, sputum, nasal mucous, fluid from the blisters, and stool. Since there is no cure for the disease, children are treated to alleviate the symptoms.  Medicine for fever and soft foods and liquids to alleviate pain from the mouth blisters are appropriate treatments.  Disinfecting kitchen, bathroom and toys is very important as is not sharing the food of any infected child.

A common condition in school aged children is bacterial conjunctivitis or as it is more commonly called “pink eye”.  Characteristic signs are red eyes and purulent drainage.  The eyelashes can become crusted during the night making it difficult for the child to open his/her eyes.  Conjunctivitis is usually self-limiting, but antimicrobial eye drops effectively resolves the infection and reduces complications.  It spreads easily from person to person and is associated with respiratory and ear infections.

In this age of immunizations, one would think that diseases such as measles, mumps, and chicken pox are a thing of the past.  Although cases are considered rare, they still occur among children who have not been immunized.  All three are contagious and can lead to severe complications.  Chicken pox can lead to a shingles episode in later life.  Measles remains a leading cause of death of young children worldwide.

Another disease for which there is an immunization is pertussis or whooping cough.  It has recently made a resurgence among young and school age children.  The initial symptoms are cough, running nose, and low grade fever.  At the disease progresses, severe coughing begins with multiple, rapid coughs followed by a “whooping” sound.  The severe symptoms can last more than 10 weeks.  Immunization is available to prevent this disease.

Another potential very serious infection is strep throat.  It most commonly occurs in children between the ages of 5 and 15.  Children often develop symptoms 2-5 days after they come in contact with nasal secretions and saliva from an infected person.  Symptoms usually begin suddenly and may be mild or severe.  These include sore and swollen throat, nausea and generally “not feeling well”.  Treatment with antibiotics is important with strep.  Untreated strep throat can lead to rheumatic fever and heart damage.

Of course, the most common of all diseases spread among young and school age children is the upper respiratory infection.  Initial symptoms are mild cough, running nose, and low grade fever.

Well, now that I have totally scared you from sending any of your children to school or day care (or even working with kids), please remember that these diseases and conditions have been around for centuries.  We are much better able to either prevent or treat most of these.  The important thing to remember is to be watchful about the way each child behaves each day.  Listless and “draggy” can be a prelude to something that should alert us that little Johnny needs special observation—and, perhaps, intervention of some kind.  Happy and “peppy” is probably an indication that little Mary and little Zachary are ready to meet the day with the usual verve of healthy children.