Many parents have a hard time deciding if their kids are well enough to go to school. What well-intentioned parent hasn’t sent a child off with tissues in hand, only to get that mid-morning “come get your child” phone call?
But making the right decision isn’t as tough as you might think. It basically boils down to one question: Is my child contagious? Infections like pinkeye or strep throat usually necessitate a day home with appropriate treatment because they are highly contagious. Most daycares and schools won’t let kids return until after a fever has broken naturally (without fever-reducing medicines) for at least 24 hours.
So what infections should parents be concerned about as kids head back to school? KidsHealth.org says these are the top five illnesses parents should look out for during the school year.
Conjunctivitis, or pinkeye, is an inflammation of the conjunctiva, the clear membrane covering the white part of the eye and the inner surface of the eyelids. It can be caused by an infection or by exposure to chemicals or other irritants.
Is it contagious? Yes. Conjunctivitis is contagious when caused by viruses (as in most cases) or bacteria, but not when caused by allergies or irritants (like air pollution or swimming pool chemicals).
How does it spread? Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria or a virus can be spread through contact with the infected person’s secretions or by touching something the person has touched (like a towel or washcloth). Children may spread it from one eye to the other through touching. Non-infectious conjunctivitis, such as that caused by an allergy, is not spread person to person.
When do symptoms go away? Usually two to three days after treatment has begun for bacterial conjunctivitis, and about one to two weeks for viral conjunctivitis. For non-infectious conjunctivitis, it depends on when the irritant or other cause is removed and, if necessary, treated.
Prevention: Kids should wash their hands often with warm water and soap and avoid sharing eye drops, makeup, pillowcases, washcloths and towels. For allergic conjunctivitis, keep windows and doors closed on days when the pollen count is high, and dust and vacuum frequently to limit allergy triggers.
Going back to school, work or play: Viral conjunctivitis: once tearing and discharge are gone (about a week).
Bacterial conjunctivitis: at least 24 hours after starting treatment.
Strep throat is a bacterial infection that can cause sore throat, headache and fever. With treatment, symptoms improve quickly. If left untreated, strep throat can lead to complications.
Is it contagious? Yes. It’s caused by group A streptococcus bacteria infecting the back of the throat and tonsils.
How does it spread? Strep throat is spread from person to person, through close contact, unwashed hands and airborne droplets from sneezing and coughing. Anybody can get strep throat, but it’s most common in school-age kids and teens. Infections can occur even after tonsils have been removed.
When do symptoms go away? Usually within two days of starting antibiotic treatment.
Prevention: To prevent its spread, keep your child’s eating utensils separate and wash them in hot soapy water, avoid sharing food or drinks, encourage frequent hand washing, and teach kids to cough or sneeze into their shirtsleeve and not their hands.
Going back to school, work or play: Wait until at least 24 hours after beginning antibiotics to resume activities.
Head lice infestation is one of the most common contagious diseases in North America. It can be successfully treated and is not serious.
Is it contagious? Yes. Lice are common among kids ages 3-12 (girls more often than boys). However, anyone can get lice, and it is not a sign of poor hygiene. Lice do not spread disease.
How does it spread? Lice have claws that allow them to crawl and cling firmly to hair. They spread mainly through head-to-head contact, but sharing clothing, bed linens, combs, brushes and hats can sometimes help pass them along. Lice can spread quickly at schools, childcare centers, slumber parties, sports activities, camps and at home, so all bedmates, infested family members and close contacts should be treated as well.
When do symptoms go away? Medicated treatments usually kill the lice and eggs (called nits), but it may take a few days for the itching to stop.
Prevention: Discourage head-to-head contact at school (in gym, on the playground or during sports) and while playing at home with other children. Discourage sharing combs, brushes, hats, hair accessories, towels or helmets with others. Every 3-4 days, examine members of your household who have had close contact with someone with lice. Only those with lice infestation require treatment.
Going back to school, work or play: Kids with active lice may return to school after the first treatment.
Molluscum contagiosum is a common childhood viral skin infection. It usually resolves without treatment in six to 12 months, though sometimes can take longer.
Is it contagious? Yes. The molluscum contagiosum virus (MCV), a member of the poxvirus family, causes this mild skin infection.
How does it spread? Through skin-to-skin contact with the virus, or by touching bath towels and clothes of those infected. Molluscum contagiosum can easily spread from one part of the body to another when a person rubs or scratches the bumps and then touches another part of the body.
When do symptoms go away? Six to 12 months (sometimes as long as four years) for all bumps to go away completely.
Prevention: Ensure kids wash their hands often. Discourage sharing of towels, clothing and other personal items.
Going back to school, work or play: Kids can continue activities as long they are receiving treatment and bumps not concealed by clothes are covered.
Walking pneumonia is the leading cause of pneumonia in school-age kids and young adults. The main symptom is a bothersome and prolonged cough.
Is it contagious? Yes. This milder form of pneumonia is caused by Mycoplasma pneumoniae, a type of bacteria. Walking pneumonia usually develops gradually and can be successfully treated with antibiotics.
How does it spread? Walking pneumonia is spread through person-to-person contact or by breathing in particles spread through the air by sneezing or coughing. It is most common in school-age and older kids, but it’s occasionally seen in those younger than 5.
When do symptoms go away? Usually three to four weeks, but antibiotic treatment may speed the recovery.
Prevention: Encourage kids to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly.
Going back to school, work or play: Kids can resume activities after 24 hours of treatment if they feel well enough.