Ask a Pediatrician: How Do I Avoid the Back-to-School Plague?

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Experts agree, play is an integral component to a child’s development, as it builds important social and emotional skills. We’ve partnered with SC Johnson on our “Ask a Pediatrician” series to ensure families can say ‘YES to play’ with the new FamilyGuard™ Brand—a lineup of disinfectant products created to help protect families against germs by disinfecting the hard, non-porous surfaces that loved ones touch the most. Visit their website for more tips, tricks and ways to celebrate family time.

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The so-called “back-to-school plague” refers to the surge of sickness that typically occurs at the start of the school year, usually a few weeks in, after everyone has been inside the classroom, sharing germs in a big petri dish. It’s quite reasonable that a long summer of fun in the sun and being away from larger groups of kids helps many children take a break from common infections and illnesses. When they come back to school in the fall, their immune systems are challenged by exposure to all sorts of viruses and bacteria, in addition to a more closed-in environment. It’s a recipe for the back-to-school plague. Even the healthiest of kids can be susceptible to catching something right around this time, so it’s a good idea to take extra precautions for a sick-free start of term.

Check All Immunizations

It’s never too early to get the flu shot for all family members. As soon as the flu shot becomes available, usually around Labor Day, it’s fair game to proceed. I have a colleague who says, “Flu before boo”, meaning get your flu shot before Halloween.

And it’s never too late to get the latest COVID-19 booster. In fact, staying up-to-date on all immunizations is the best line of defense against infection and disease. If you haven’t yet scheduled your child’s annual appointment with their pediatrician, now is a good time to do so. If you already have, ask the doctor about the necessary vaccinations for your child, and make sure they are on track with the immunization schedule.

Review Hygiene Practices

Whether your kiddo is six or sixteen, good infection control habits are essential to staying safe and healthy. And everyone, regardless of age, needs some reminders every now and then to follow these basic guidelines:

  1. Avoid sharing food with peers, no matter how close you are. Do not finish other people’s drinks or lunches once they have started consuming them.
  2. If you have to cough or sneeze, remember to do so into the inside of your elbow to avoid spraying others with droplets. If you use a tissue, throw it out right away. Always sanitize your hands after a cough or a sneeze.
  3. Wash or sanitize hands regularly throughout the day, and especially when you get home from school. If possible, change out of ‘outside’ clothing as soon as you enter your house. Wash for as long as it takes to sing the ABCs or the Happy Birthday song twice.
  4. Respect the personal space of other people. Avoid touching others unnecessarily. And try not to touch your face!

If your child is in middle or high school (and especially if they are in athletics), make sure to go over locker room safety and hygiene reminders, such as wearing flip flops to avoid foot fungus, placing clothing in a plastic bag instead of the floor, giving each other space when changing and keeping the locker clear and dry.

Sleep, Diet and Exercise

Depending on your child’s age, they need anywhere between 8 and 10 hours or more of sleep every night to maintain healthy growth and development. Getting enough sleep also contributes to a strong immune system, thus helping them fight off illnesses during the back-to-school season. It may be difficult to get back into the school year bedtime schedule, but consistency is key, and doing so is instrumental in setting them up for a successful and healthy term.

Another great way to boost the immune system is to eat a balanced diet, consisting of whole fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and lots of water. Food education is a big part of making sure school-age kids get the proper nutrition because you can’t always control what they’re eating. Thus, they must learn to make good choices when away from home—initiate conversations about healthy foods and dietary balance with your family. Enlist your kids in assisting with food prep! It’s a great way to teach them agency over their health.

Physical exercise and conditioning play a role as well, adding to overall reserve which renders anyone and everyone better positioned to protect against and fight off any infection. Encourage your kids to join a fall sport or other active extracurricular and remind them to take advantage of their physical education class—they will likely miss the free daily workout as adults. Of course, moderation is important here, as overwhelming the body physically could actually lead to lowered immune protection.

When You Can’t Avoid—Manage!

Realistically, it’s impossible to create a 100 percent foolproof defense against the back-to-school plague, and it’s likely someone in your household may become ill at some point throughout the year. Knowing this, try to be flexible: anticipate temporary seasonal mitigation measures, such as masks, and have back-up plans in mind in case an event has to be cancelled due to family illness.

Check your medicine cabinet for expired medication, and stock up on handy OTC items, such as cetirizine, Tylenol and ibuprofen. Give your pediatrician a call to make sure you have their after-hours number and locate your closest pediatric urgent care. In short, remember that most illnesses can be managed with the proper know-how and preparation. And don’t forget to hydrate!

Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S.

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Dr. Christina Johns is a pediatrician + Senior Medical Advisor at PM Pediatric Care, the largest pediatric urgent care group in the U.S. She received her undergraduate degree at...