Is School Making Your Child Sick?

Sick School Syndrome Is Growing

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 23, 2002 -- Ever seem like your child is sick on schooldays, but always raring to go on weekends? For some, it may be more than just a case of not wanting to go to class, it could be a case of sick school syndrome.

Researchers say the problem of schools making students sick is a newly recognized issue, but one that's quickly growing in incidence across the U.S.

"We are witnessing and will continue to see an increasing risk of illness caused by schools with a range of environmental problems," says Michael Shannon, MD, MPH, director of the pediatric environmental health center at Children's Hospital Boston. He presented new research on sick school syndrome this week at the American Academy of Pediatrics National Conference and Exhibition in Boston.

Shannon says the symptoms of sick school syndrome may mimic other illnesses, such as allergies and asthma, and include congestion, red eyes, cough, and wheezing.

"These symptoms may often be very non-specific and are often dismissed by parents, school nurses, pediatricians, and school superintendents," says Shannon.

"Parents should be attentive if their child seems to be complaining of illness that consistently occurs while they are at school," says Shannon. If a noticeable pattern is detected, the parent should contact their pediatrician to have the child examined.

Once other potential health problems have been eliminated, the pediatrician can contact the school to see if there are any potential explanations for the illness, such as recent construction, cleaning, painting, or other changes in the building's environment. The doctor can also ask school officials for a copy of their most recent air quality report or request that an environmental inspection be conducted.

Shannon says the most common environmental offenders that cause sick school syndrome are molds, pet dander brought in by other students, problems with heating and ventilation units, improper use of chemical solvents or cleaners in the schools, and pesticide use on the grounds.

He says it's a mistake to think that the issue is one that affects only older schools that need a good cleaning, because many new schools also have environmental problems due to their location near contaminated land sites or the type of materials used in construction.

Sick school syndrome is also a condition that won't affect everyone exposed to the same irritants. Shannon says some students, such as those susceptible to allergies or asthma, may be more sensitive to their school environment and potential irritants.

Once diagnosed with sick school syndrome, the physician may be able to manage the symptoms with treatment, or recommend that the school remove or clean up the source of irritation. In more serious cases, the child may have to change schools, but Shannon says this usually the last resort. -->