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Germs in the School Room

By Camille Peri
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

The average American child has six to 10 colds a year. In fact, children's colds cause more doctor visits and missed school days than any other illness. And every parent knows how easily colds passed to other family members once one child gets sick.

What can a parent do? Stopping cold germs where they breed is your best defense.

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"Children gathering in schools is one of the main ways germs circulate in communities," says Athena P. Kourtis, MD, PhD, MPH, a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child Healthy in a Germ-Filled World.

Why?

  • Children's immune systems are less mature than those of adults, so they're more susceptible to germs.
  • At school, kids are in close contact with each other.
  • And they tend to have germy habits, such as sticking fingers and objects in their mouths.

Combine these factors, and the conditions are ripe for spreading germs at school. But most illness can be avoided, says Philip Tierno, PhD, author of The Secret Life of Germs. "A few simple measures can go a long way." 

Here are 10 ways to help protect your child from germs and illness at school.

1. Get Immunized

"Prevention is the best medicine," Tierno says. Make sure your child is up to date on scheduled immunizations and that everyone in the family has gotten a seasonal flu vaccine. In 2010, the CDC began recommending flu vaccination for everyone over six months old. If you miss the vaccine in fall, winter or even spring is not too late. Peak flu season is usually not until February and you can get vaccinated as late as May.

2. Know How and When to Wash Hands

One of the most common ways children get colds is by rubbing their nose or eyes after cold virus germs have gotten on their hands. And children often don't wash their hands often enough or well enough at school. In one study of middle and high school students, about half washed their hands after using the bathroom -- and only 33% of the girls and 8% of the boys used soap.

Make sure your child knows to use soap and warm water. He should scrub all over -- including the back of his hands, between fingers, and around nails -- for about 20 seconds, about the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song twice. Then rinse well in warm water, dry with a paper towel, and use the towel to turn off the water.

In an ideal world, children would wash their hands many times a day in school. In the real world, the most important times to wash are after using the bathroom and before eating, drinking, or touching their mouth, eyes, or nose. Ask your child's teacher to include hand-washing time before lunch or snacks and teach your child not to touch his nose, eyes, or mouth when his hands are dirty.

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