New knowledge? Sure—and new germs. Send the kids back to school, and wait for the bugs they'll inevitably bring home. "Prevention can be a little difficult, but it's the same as your mother taught you: Keep your hands away from your face and wash your hands," says pediatrician Gordon Schutze, who serves on the American Academy of Pediatrics' committee on infectious diseases.
All it takes is one kid to cough or sneeze in the classroom, and suddenly his peers are sick too, because they inhaled the infected respiratory droplets. Or a kid with diarrhea forgets to wash his hands after using the bathroom and proceeds to infect everything he touches. That's why proper hand washing is so important, says Albert Martinez, a pediatrician based in San Diego, Calif., who describes it as "the best prevention strategy." (Teach kids to use soap and water, and scrub vigorously for 20 seconds—the time it takes to sing the "Happy Birthday" song two times.) Arm your child with alcohol-based hand sanitizer to keep in his desk, too. It's smart to use before eating lunch, and after using a shared computer mouse, pencil sharpener, water fountain, or other communal object. And though kids sometimes like to sample each other's lunches, remind yours not to share water bottles, food, or other personal items.
Beware: These common back-to-school contagions may be coming home with the homework:
Hand, foot, and mouth disease. The viral infection causes mouth ulcers and tiny blisters on the hands and feet. "There's been an increase lately," Martinez says. Although it's moderately contagious, it's usually not serious. There's no specific treatment, but practicing good hygiene—such as frequent and thorough hand washing—can keep your little one safe.
Colds. There's no such thing as "cold season." Colds can strike at any time of the year, and are caused by more than 20 different viruses. Symptoms include congestion, a runny nose, headache, cough, sore throat, and tiredness. Typically, a cold-ridden kid is contagious for two to three days. The best medicine? Lots of fluids and plenty of rest.
Respiratory viruses. These are "very contagious," Martinez says. Particularly worrisome: Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, which sends at least 2 million kids under age 5 to the doctor or hospital each year. Symptoms include shortness of breath, a "seal bark" cough, fever, stuffy nose, and wheezing. It's most common from late fall through early spring.
Strep throat. Ouch. Strep brings fever, stomach pain, and red, swollen tonsils. Since strep-causing bacteria migrate to the nose and throat, sneezing, coughing, and shaking hands can spread it from person to person. Strep requires antibiotic treatment, but kids typically recover within a few days. If it's not treated, it can trigger scarlet fever—all the symptoms associated with strep, along with a scarlet-colored rash that commonly appears on the neck, chest, armpits, elbows, groin, and inner thighs.
Influenza. You know the symptoms: Fever. Coughing and a sore throat. Headache and runny nose. Chills, fatigue, and maybe some nausea and vomiting. Flu season typically starts in October, peaks in January, February, and March, and winds down in May. The federal government recommends everyone 6 months and older get the flu shot, which arrives in most towns this month. The sooner you and your kids get the shot, the sooner you're all protected. It doesn't wear off: If you get vaccinated now, you'll still be protected when flu season wraps up next year. Although it doesn't completely rule out the chance of getting sick, the vaccine reduces the likelihood by 70 to 90 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Head lice. These tiny, parasitic insects live among human hairs, feeding on blood drawn from the scalp. Three- to 12-year-old girls are particularly at risk, although boys in that age range are not immune. Contrary to popular perception, personal hygiene has nothing to do with getting head lice. Adult lice are about the size of a sesame seed; eggs are similar to dandruff flakes. Lice are very contagious—close contact and sharing hats or hairbrushes hike the risk. Both over-the-counter and prescription medications can treat the problem. "It's more annoying than dangerous," Martinez says.
Clearly, germs are bouncing off school walls. Keeping kids healthy in the classroom also requires keeping their immune systems strong, says pediatrician Jim Sears, co-host of The Doctors talk show. "That's one of the things I preach. People think it's cliché but it makes a difference," he says. "Every time you eat a fruit or veggie or a piece of fish, you're helping your immune system fight things better," and any time you eat junk food or drink soda, you're weakening your immune system, he adds. The white blood cells that gobble up bacteria typically slow down for about six hours after a heavy dose of sugar, Sears says. "I always ask my kids, 'Is this a good time to be suppressing your immune system?' And the answer is always no."
And if your kid is sick, don't send him to school. Otherwise, he could inadvertently infect his classmates. Kids should stay home if they have a fever of 100 degrees or higher; if they're vomiting or have diarrhea; and if they're coughing up mucus. "Sometimes as a parent you feel stuck," Sears says. "And you think, 'He's alive, so he should be well enough to go to school.' But it's really not fair to send kids in when they're contagious, because then he'll infect 10 of the other kids, and a few days later those parents are going through the same thing."