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Does School Make Your Kids Sick?

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What's the real deal with germs and school? Why do kids get sick so often and what should you do about it?


We asked momlogic contributor and pediatrician, Dr. Cara to explain:

"No matter where you live--whether you experience the four seasons of the Northeastern corridor or you live in permanently balmy Los Angeles--there is a cold and flu season. It starts about a month after school, resumes in the fall and it lasts until Spring Break.

"There are many reasons why kids are regularly sick from October through March. Mostly, it has to do with the fact that they are in school together for several hours every day, not just sharing food and drinks but also coughing and sneezing on each other.

"Most of the illnesses they pass around are viruses, which are infections that will go away on their own after five to seven days.

"Most parents send their kids to school before they realize they are sick: that first day of a virus, a child might complain but doesn't look ill. That same day, the virus is passing along to others. Some parents also choose to send their kids to school when they are actively ill. They may do this because there is no one available to stay home with the child during the day, or because the child is concerned about missing school. (The latter reason is fairly common in high school.)

"Regardless of why a sick child goes to school, their attendance means that more kids will get sick.

"The best way for anyone--parent, child or teacher--to avoid catching an infection from someone else is good basic hand washing. Washing your hands before eating keeps germs off of your food and out of your mouth. Washing hands after touching doorknobs, banisters, and desks minimizes the number of germs on your hands. This is not to say that people should become compulsive about hand washing, but certainly before meals and anytime you go to the bathroom, hands should be washed well.

"Toddlers tend to be sick the most often with a virus (cough or runny nose or fever or fussiness) every four to six weeks. This is because toddlers swap spit so often, coming into contact with each other's saliva while sharing toys and play equipment. Even older kids are sick frequently during the cold and flu season, with most catching at least three or four colds.

"You can't stop the world when someone in your house gets sick; it is simply not possible. And the way these things travel, just as one person is on the mend, the next is starting to come down with it. There are times when it feels like there is no break from illness. But in general, if your child has a fever, is coughing frequently, feels exhausted, or looks rundown, it is best to take the day off from school."

To ask Dr. Cara a question, click here.

Dr. Cara Natterson, author of Your Toddler: Head To Toe, is a pediatrician and mother of 2. To buy a copy of her book, click here.

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113 comments so far | Post a comment now
JustMe August 28, 2008, 5:19 PM

The best way is to keep your kid HOME when they are sick. One of parents will just have to make a sacrific and stay home with them; I did.

Kelly August 28, 2008, 5:34 PM

It’s hard trying to keep your head above water and still take the time off to stay home with a sick kid. But it needs to be done. You do not know what effect the action of sending a sick child to school will have. For example, I used to be a teacher and a mother sent her child in on a Monday with a virus - the child was VERY CLEARLY ill and the mom said she simply could not take the day off and didn’t have anyone to watch her kid. I happened to be only three weeks pregnant at the time, did not even know I was pregnant. I caught the virus from this child, as did several other kids in the class as well as my unborn child. Before the end of the first trimester my child’s brain had completely stopped developing and now he is severely disabled. His younger sister is always coming home telling me about this kid or that at school and sick. One parent once dropped her child off in the car line, the kid actually threw up as she got out of the car and the mom just drove off and left her at school. It’s terrible. She brings home all manner of illnesses that endanger her brothers life and often land him in the hospital. I do very much appreciate how hard it is to juggle kids and bills and jobs but in the end, keep your sick child home. Work it out somehow but don’t endanger them or anyone else cause somewhere out there it may be a life or death situation each time some new virus is brought home from school.

Paula August 28, 2008, 7:36 PM

I am a parent of twin 9 yr old girls. I am very involved with volunteering at their school & work as a subsitute yard supervisor. I agree hand washing is one of the best defenses against children getting sick. What I don’t understand is, why there isn’t a more strict rules for wiping down surfaces like desk on a daily basis & cafeteria tables after every group of children eat. I think schools are to lax in this area. What about stopping the spread of staph infections and ring worm?

ashley August 29, 2008, 7:57 AM

I have a 6 year old and a 15 month old. My son just started 1st grade a week ago. Wednesday my mom said she thought he sounded like he had a cold. Then yesterday he walked out of school with a tissue in his hand. and last night I saw he had a runny nose. I am going to send him to school today and hopefully on the 3 day weekend he will get better but now I know my daughter is going to be sick so we’re in for a great Labor Day weekend.

Peaches August 29, 2008, 10:41 AM

My daughter has been in school since Aug 12th. She’s in 1st grade and has been sick since school started. The third day of school, she got sent home early… I took her to the doctor and she had strep throat. We got that cleared up and this week, the school nurse called me twice! The first time was right when school was over but my daughter attends the after school program until I get off work and can get her. That day, I was able to have someone pick her up. Yesterday, I had to leave work 2 hours early to get her and had to take off today. I’m in a tight spot because I just started a new job a month ago… thankfully, it’s a family owned business and all of the family members have children and completely understand. But I’m also a single mother with not just my daughter to take care of but also a son that will be 2 in December! It’s hard for me to find someone that can care for my kids when they’re sick and I don’t like asking other people to do it because they need their mother and it’s MY responsibility to care for them. But I also can’t afford to take off work so much. My son’s father isn’t in the picture and my daughter’s father lives and works quite a distance away from her school and where we live. He can’t afford to take off either! It’s a lose lose situation when your kids are sick and can’t go to school!!

cara August 29, 2008, 12:34 PM

My kids act like I am asking them to stand outside naked when I tell them to wash their hands first thing after coming home from school.

Mary August 29, 2008, 4:32 PM

My son is going into Middle School this year & every year since Kindergarden he has missed 14 or more days of school a year from being sick! I do keep my son home when he is sick & I get called into school because he misses too much school!!!! I believe in keeping your kids home from school if they are sick, but my son’s school doesn’t think so. So other parents keep sending their kids to school sick & my son gets sick over & over again from their germs! The other parents in my town feel that school is a free babysitter! Grow up already & be good parents will you PLEASE. Keep your kids home when they are sick! Thank You.

Tanya Phillips September 2, 2008, 9:36 AM

The problem with colds and flu is that you are most contagious before you even feel symptoms. So by the time you see your own children with the tell tale signs of illness and DO keep them home, they’ve probably already infected 10 or more other children. While, I do agree that if your child is sick, you should keep them home, it’s more for your child than for preventing others from becoming sick.

roneigh January 7, 2009, 8:14 AM

i’m 16 and got a cold and my dad is telling me to go to school but i don’t wanna go

Z January 10, 2009, 12:14 PM

This site is reassuring because I was feeling paranoid about how often my child gets sick. I do agree schools should be more proactive in cleaning and preventing the spread of germs. I don’t think kids are given the opportunity to wash their hands often enough in school. I have to miss so many days of work during the school year, I’m surprised I still have a job!

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