New School Year, New Germs: How to Manage Frequent Illness This School Year

Published on in Health Tip of the Week

Mother using pump sanitizer on son's hands Let’s face it: Kids get sick. Especially young children — like those in daycare — whose bodies haven’t yet been exposed to the host of viral illnesses passed around school settings.

The good news? Frequent illness can be very normal in childhood. Exposure to new environments (and new germs) helps build up children’s natural immunity; in fact, it’s perfectly normal for your child to come down with respiratory and/or stomach bugs six to eight times each year!

But in yet another school year shadowed by the COVID-19 pandemic, navigating an every-now-and-then cold will likely be more complicated than in years past. Masks, or the lack thereof, will impact the amount of germ exposure your child has. And after a year of relative isolation and virtual learning, most children — even older kids with more mature immune systems — may get sick more often once they return to in-person school.

So how can you tell if your child has a garden variety cold or COVID-19? And with COVID safety protocol in place at schools, how do you manage work if your child has to be home every time they have the sniffles?

According to Anjuli Gans, MD, a Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) pediatrician, the best thing parents can do during this time of uncertainty is to focus on what they can control. When it comes to managing your child’s health this school year, it may be helpful to specifically focus on these three areas:

  • Practice healthy habits at home
  • Know your school’s policy around illness
  • Make a plan with your pediatrician in the event your child is sick

Says Dr. Gans, “The important thing to remember is that you can only control so much — focusing on these three areas can help you feel more informed about your child’s health and more confident in your decision-making.”

Healthy habits start at home

Even though the occasional cold or stomach bug is to be expected in children, there are a few things you can do to limit your child’s exposure to germs.

The most important thing you can do is teach your child how to properly wash their hands. Handwashing or the use of hand sanitizer is particularly important after using the restroom or changing your child’s diaper. Find tips on proper handwashing and fun ways to encourage handwashing in your kids.

It may also be helpful to teach your child to sneeze and cough into their elbow instead of their hands, which are more likely to spread germs. 

To help protect against COVID-19, make sure all eligible family members 12 years and older have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

Stay informed on school policy

In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and keep children safe, most schools have adopted strict guidelines regarding what symptoms are and are not acceptable at school. To help you prepare for the year ahead, it’s important you become familiar with your school’s policy around student illness, specifically:

  • What symptoms are acceptable for attendance (i.e., a runny nose vs. a cough)?
  • When can my child return to school after illness?
  • To return to school, does my child need proof of a negative COVID-19 test or a doctor’s note?

Knowing your school’s policy around student illness can help you set realistic expectations around the school year, when you may need to keep your child home more often than you would have prior to the pandemic. You may also want to speak to your employer ahead of time and, if possible, arrange to work from home when your child is ill.

Make a plan with your pediatrician

Having a plan for how to handle common childhood illnesses, such as fevers, stomach bugs and bronchiolitis, will help you feel more prepared when your child inevitably comes homesick this school year. Your pediatrician can help you determine what symptoms can be managed at home and when it’s time to take your child in for a visit.

“COVID-19 can look like a cold,” says Dr. Gans, “and that can be really scary for parents. Erring on the side of caution and talking to your pediatrician early in the course of illness is particularly important this year.”

Dr. Gans also notes that dehydration, prolonged fever in kids older than 3 months, or coughs with concerning signs such as wheezing or trouble breathing, or that last longer than 7-10 days, are all reasons to contact your pediatrician right away.

When a visit to the pediatrician’s office is needed, you’ll want to know ahead of time whether telehealth visits are an option and when an in-person visit is more appropriate. Your pediatrician’s office can also tell you how to get a COVID-19 test and/or a doctor’s note for when your child is able to return to school.

How many colds is too many?

When faced with multiple bouts of colds or the tummy bug, some parents may worry that their child’s frequent illness is an indication of an underlying disorder, such as an immune deficiency.

“For most children, frequent viral illnesses don’t necessarily signal a broader immune problem,” says Dr. Gans. “True immune deficiencies are related to specific types of infections, as opposed to multiple colds.” If you are worried that your child may have an underlying condition, you can always address it with your pediatrician.

The bottom line: Germs aren’t all bad. In fact, as frustrating as it may feel when your child’s nose seems to be constantly running, exposure to some germs may actually help their body learn to fight off those same germs in the future.

“Some illnesses can help nurture a stronger immune system,” says Dr. Gans. “Of course, we never want our kids to be sick, but the important thing is to keep your child comfortable, so the illness is the least impairing as possible.”

With the right information and the right plan in place, you’ll be well prepared to manage your child’s health this school year.

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