Back-to-School Child-Health Guide

Your children may be bringing home more than assignments: how to spot, prevent, and treat 13 illnesses your kids could contract at school.

Photo by Liz Banfield

For many parents, the return to school means the end of freedom from stuffy noses, fevers, and 9 p.m. calls to the pediatrician: Your children are likely to bring home more than just homework once they’re back in close quarters with other kids. What can you do? Schedule an end-of-summer visit to the doctor to make sure your kids (even tweens and teens) have all the vaccinations they need. And follow the advice of Pamela Murray, MD, vice-chair of the department of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the West Virginia University School of Medicine: “Put hand sanitizer on your back-to-school shopping list.” A refresher course in frequent (after the bathroom and before all meals) and thorough (warm water, lots of lather, scrub long enough to silently sing “Happy Birthday” through twice) hand washing is also a good idea. Still, your kids are bound to come down with something, so here’s our guide to spotting, treating, and preventing the most common childhood illnesses.

The Common Cold


What is it? A fact of life caused by a group of different “rhinoviruses.” Generally, the question is not “Will my kid catch a cold this year?” but “How many colds will my kid catch this year?” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number is eight, on average. Good grief.

How do you catch it? By being near a sneezing, coughing cold sufferer or touching surfaces he or she has touched.

What are the symptoms? Runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, and, sometimes, a sore throat, cough, headache, or low fever.

How is it treated? With rest and plenty of fluids. While over-the-counter cold medications can help ease symptoms, they should not be given to children under the age of 6.

How is it prevented? Hand washing, hand washing, hand washing, and/or the liberal use of hand sanitizer.

When should a doctor be consulted? “Most colds will go away in about a week,” says Barbara Frankowski, professor of pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine and immediate past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health. “People often feel better after five days.” If, by then, your child is not on the mend, has had a fever for more than two days, or starts to develop ear or sinus pain, call the doc. She may have developed a bacterial infection in the ear canal or sinuses and could need antibiotics.


What is it? An upper respiratory infection caused by influenza viruses.

How do you catch it? Same way as a cold.

What are the symptoms? Fever, chills, sore throat, cough, runny or stuffy nose, headache or other body aches, fatigue, and—in children—vomiting or diarrhea.

How is it treated? A viral illness, the flu should be treated with plenty of rest and fluids until it just runs its course. Kids who are more susceptible to complications from the flu (such as those under 5 or with asthma or diabetes) may need to be treated with antiviral medications. The CDC says children can return to school 24 hours after their fever has resolved.

How is it prevented? The annual flu vaccine—a shot with inactivated flu virus that prompts the body to mount a defense to the illness—is recommended for children over the age of 6 months. It’s typically released in September. There is also a nasal flu vaccine with live virus, but it cannot be administered to children younger than 2. Even with vaccination, always practice good hand washing.

When should a doctor be consulted? Anytime your child appears to be sicker than a run-of-the-mill cold, it’s a good idea to call. In addition, phone immediately if your child exhibits rapid breathing or has trouble breathing, or has a blue tinge to his skin. Other signs of trouble: Your child is not eating or drinking enough fluids; isn’t interacting normally; develops a rash along with a fever; has a fever or cough that wanes, then returns; or generally does not seem to be improving.