It’s the time of year for getting into new routines, making new friends…and getting sick. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), elementary school students can get eight to 12 colds each year. For many parents, it seems that they get all of these illnesses in the month after school starts.
Although putting lots of children in enclosed spaces together for six hours does mean an increased chance of sharing colds and flu, there are things you can do to lessen the risk. We talked to Dr. Christine Darr, medical director of the pediatric emergency department at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, about how to keep kids healthy during the school year.
Prevention at Home
Darr says one important way to stay healthy is to take kids in for a check-up at the beginning of the school year. Make sure their immunizations are up-to-date and they get vision and hearing screenings to ensure they don’t face any unnoticed challenges in class. Check-ups are essential for all students—even those heading off to college. Darr says it’s especially important to make sure undergraduates have updated meningococcal vaccines because students are in close contact with one another 24 hours a day.
Also, begin setting a sleep schedule for kids early in the school year. Elementary school students need nine to 11 hours of sleep per night, and high schoolers need eight or more. If your child is getting less sleep, start moving their bedtime up by 10 to 15 minutes every other night until they are getting the recommended amount. Be careful of electronics in bedrooms as well. The light emitted from computers and smartphones can interfere with your child’s quality of sleep. Darr recommends turning off all electronic devices an hour before bedtime to allow kids time to unwind.
Prevention at School
The most important thing kids can do at school is to wash their hands frequently to stop the spread of germs. Teach children to wash their hands after every trip to the bathroom, before they eat, and anytime they have touched their eyes, nose, or mouth. Although there have been questions lately about whether kids are better off sticking with soap and water or antibacterial gels, Darr advises teachers and parents to use whatever works. If kids don’t remember or aren’t able to wash their hands, antibacterial gels or wipes are a good alternative to keep hands clean.
Along with hand-washing, remind kids to use a tissue when sneezing or blowing their nose. Teach them to cough into the crook of their elbow rather than into their hands to stop germs from spreading. Talk to kids and remind them that things like sharing food or other items spreads germs and can make you sick as well.
Keep Them Home
If your child does get sick, it’s important to keep them home until they”re better. Not only do you help prevent the spread of illness, most kids are miserable at school and don’t accomplish much when they”re not feeling well. Keep children home when they have a fever, are vomiting, have diarrhea, or if they have an unidentified rash. Check with your child’s school to see if there are other restrictions on when to send kids back to school.
Back-to-school colds are likely when everyone gets together in one room, and Darr says it’s smart to be prepared. “It’s inevitable—they”re going to get something,” she says. “It’s good to have a back-up plan for when your child has to stay home.”
Laura Falin is a Denver-based writer and mother.