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

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Health Tip of the Week

Mother using pump sanitizer on son's hands Back to school means a lot of things: new backpacks, new subjects to learn…and new germs. Frequent illness is a normal part of childhood – in fact, it’s perfectly normal for your child to come down with respiratory and/or stomach bugs six to eight times each year!

So how can you prepare for these inevitable illnesses? 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
  • Get organized with your child’s school
  • Make a plan with your pediatrician in the event your child is sick

Preparing at home

The most important thing you can do to help limit your child’s exposure to germs is to teach them 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 have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

More resources to help you manage common childhood illnesses at home:

Preparing with your child’s school

We know there’s a lot to think about when you’re getting your children ready for the school year. So to make things a little easier when it comes to their health, Dr. Gans has the following tips for getting organized with their school:

  • Paperwork. Bring any needed health, immunization, and medication forms with you to your child’s pediatrician visit or send them in to be completed before the school year starts.
  • Medications. If your child takes any regular medications, make sure to get them refilled and ask for an extra. That way you can have one at home and one at school (or an extra in case one is lost).
  • Weight. Children’s medications are given based on weight, so knowing your child’s latest weight is helpful in case there’s an emergency where they require medicine.
  • COVID-19 protocols. Get familiar with the 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?

More resources to help you get back into the swing of things this school year: 

Preparing with your pediatrician

Having a plan for the fall and winter season can help you feel confident as you head into these busy months. Consider asking your pediatrician:

  • If you need a sick appointment, how quickly can you be seen?
  • How fast are after-hours calls answered?
  • Where should you go if you can’t be seen in the office?
  • Does the office offer video visits?
  • Is my child up to date on their vaccines? Do I need to make separate appointments for immunizations?
  • What are the office’s policies around writing back-to-school letters for kids?

It’s also helpful to know what symptoms signal the need to call your pediatrician right away. These symptoms include:

  • Dehydration
  • Prolonged fever in children older than 3 months
  • Coughs with concerning signs such as wheezing or trouble breathing, or that last longer than 7-10 days

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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