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Preparing for Illness at School
When children return to school in September, they're excited about seeing their old friends, making new friends and sharing stories of their summer. There's something else children are sure to share when they return to school: germs. Within the first month of school, you can expect your child to catch an illness such as a cold, a sore throat, ear infection, diarrhea or even head lice.

Trying to Prevent Illness

Although occasional illnesses are inevitable, you can take the following measures to help prevent illnesses:

Give your child healthy food and plenty of fluids. Children need nutritious food to build their natural immune defenses against germs. They need protein (found in meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans and tofu), vitamins and minerals (in fruits and vegetables), carbohydrates (in whole-grain cereal, rice and pasta), and calcium (in milk, cheese and yogurt). Give your child three healthy meals and two snacks a day, and be sure she doesn't skip breakfast in the rush to get to school. Since fluids are needed for all children's body systems, give your child plenty of water, up to three cups of milk and up to one cup of 100 percent juice a day.

Ensure that your child gets enough sleep. Young children need eight to 12 hours of sleep each day. Knowing what time your child must wake in the morning, calculate when she needs to get to sleep. Homework should be done in the afternoon or early evening so she has time to relax before bed. Keep the TV out of her bedroom, limit TV and video games to no more than one to two hours and avoid violent programs, which can make children anxious and cause difficulty falling asleep. Be sure she gets daily exercise and avoids caffeinated drinks in the evening.

Teach your child to wash his hands frequently. Children's hands carry and spread germs. Teach your child to wash his hands with soap and water after going to the bathroom or blowing his nose, and before eating. Teach your child to keep his hands clean by not picking his nose or rubbing his eyes, and coughing or sneezing into his elbow rather than his hands. Give him a pack of disposable tissues to use to blow his nose instead of wiping his nose with his hand.

Advise your child not to share food or drinks. Children also spread germs through saliva. Encourage your child to avoid sharing food, drinks or utensils. Kiss your child on the cheek or forehead rather than the lips.

Keep your child up to date on immunizations. Make sure your child stays on schedule for his immunizations: the baby shots from birth to age 2, and boosters before entering kindergarten, middle school and high school. Ask your child's doctor if a yearly flu vaccine would be helpful.

If your child has asthma, make sure she's on her controller or preventive medications when school starts. Although children with asthma are often healthier in the summertime, a respiratory infection in September commonly triggers an asthma attack. This can often be prevented by having your child on his daily preventive inhaler.

Planning for Illnesses
  • Plan who will pick up your sick child at school and stay home with him when he's ill. If both parents work, check whether your employer allows you to take sick leave when your child is sick. If you can't take time off, be sure to have backup arrangements with at least two relatives or friends who could care for your child when she's sick.
  • Know the school's policy for homework during illnesses. Some schools require children to get their homework from friends in their classes while others have the teachers prepare homework packets you can pick up in the office.
Dealing with Illnesses
  • Keep on hand the food and medical supplies your sick child might need. Make sure you have at home chicken soup, crackers, freezer pops, ginger ale, a thermometer and medicine such as acetaminophen for fevers and throat lozenges for sore throat.
  • Make your child comfortable. Fluff up her pillows in bed or on the sofa. Bring her things to entertain her quietly such as books, puzzles, cards, sketch pads, music and movies.
  • Know when to take your child to the doctor. Most illnesses—such as colds, sore throat, flu and diarrhea—are mild, caused by viruses and go away on their own within a few days. If your child appears very ill (he has a severe headache, severe abdominal pain or difficulty breathing) or he isn't getting better within three days, be sure to call the doctor.
  • Try to enjoy the time with your child. Although illnesses can be uncomfortable for children and stressful for parents, they are important opportunities to nurture your child. When older children are well, they often pride themselves on being independent. But when they're sick, they often want to be taken care of. Spend time taking care of your child: talking, rubbing her tummy, brushing her hair, reading out loud, playing cards, bringing her food and playing games. Your child will soon be well again and less needy of your nurturing.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician