Back to school means lots of kids spreading lots of germs. Here\'s how to prepare for it.
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School is like a petri dish because the students interact within a closed-in space and the bacteria and viruses are able to grow on lots of unsuspecting hosts —Jeanne Gallagher

By her own account, Jeanne Gallagher is no germaphobe. The mom of three has always encouraged her girls to play hard outdoors in the dirt all summer and says she doesn't mind if they suffer from an occasional cold or virus. She knows that's helping to build her daughters' immune systems.

But back-to-school times bring the busy mother a serious case of dread.

"School is like a petri dish because the students interact within a closed-in space and the bacteria and viruses are able to grow on lots of unsuspecting hosts," says Gallahger, who works in television and film production. "Inevitably, they get sick."

Typically Gallagher's youngest, who is eight and about to start third grade, gets felled by a cold or strep within a week of the first school bell's ring and then passes it to her sisters, who are ages 10 and 13. Because she suffers from asthma, Gallagher's middle daughter is usually hardest hit. At the first sign of a sniffle, Gallagher says she ramps up doses of use of vitamin C, give her daughter orange juice, probiotics and supervises twice daily treatments with a nebulizer.

"Anything we can do to help strengthen her immune system," Gallagher says. "We've sort of learned how to prepare, so sometimes were able to prevent the cold from developing into full-blown asthma incident, but generally by the time her birthday rolls around in the third week of September, she's sick and we can't have a party."

The Gallaghers are far from alone. The start of the school year often triggers a rash of colds in many families, but not all that much can be done to prevent it, says Kevin F. Wilson, M.D., an ear, nose and throat physician at University of Utah Health Care and an assistant professor of surgery in the Division of Otolaryngology at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

"Once you get lots of kids around lots of other kids, they tend to pass things around," says Wilson. "It's not inevitable. I wouldn't worry too much, but use common sense and just try to have good hygiene habits and take care of yourself overall," he adds of keeping kids healthy as they head back to school.

Among the common ailments that pop up each fall: Allergies, ear infections and strep throat. Here are some things Wilson suggests parents should keep in mind:

Allergies spike in the fall due to exposure to pollens, including ragweed and sagebrush. Symptoms can include congestion, a runny nose and itchy or watery eyes. If a child is also experiencing wheezing or any chest tightness, they might be suffering from asthma and should see a physician for assessment, Wilson says. Both allergies and asthma can be treated with medications and with immunotherapy, depending on the severity of the illnesses. Wilson also recommends avoiding the things that trigger the problems. Treating allergies can also ward off other potential health problems, including ear infections, he says.

Ear infections differ from the swimmer's ear kids get during summer months. Infections typically caused by swelling in the tube which connect a child's ear to the back of his or her nose and are usually more communicable than other illnesses. Most ear infections are viral, so doctors now recommend skipping the use of antibiotics in favor of "symptomatic supportive care," including pain and fever reducers, Wilson says. Persistent infections may also be a sign that a child is suffering from allergies, so Wilson suggests talking with a physician if a child has frequent infections.

Strep throat is a bacteria species which is one of many that can cause a sore throat. The symptoms can also include aches, fever and painful swelling of the throat. While many people think that any painful sore throat is strep, most are caused by a virus infection and not strep bacteria. Treatments for a sore throat vary, but if a child tests positive for strep, treatment often includes antibiotics, Wilson says. If a child suffers from frequent bouts of the strep, "that's when we start talking about taking out their tonsils," he says.

Wilson says that beyond maintaining good overall health and cleanliness habits, there is likely little parents or kids can do to keep from getting sick. In part, one's general health may depend on an individual's own immune system, he says.

"An immune system is a highly individualized thing," he says. "There's this balance. One side fights infection and one side responds to allergens. If you have more of your infection side up and running, you tend to get less of the other."

One key component of staying healthy that shouldn't be ignored? Good nutrition, Wilson says. "Fresh produce, fruits and vegetables certainly have a lot of good disease fighting properties and anti-inflammatory properties that really help prevent and fight infection," he says. "So packing a healthy lunch helps. Hopefully, it gets eaten."

To try and protect her own kids, Gallagher says she's developed some specific strategies for back-to-school, including encouraging her daughters to wash their hands with soap and water frequently. She promotes hand washing with soap while at school, and requires it when they return home each day. The Gallagher girls are also asked to leave their grimy backpacks near the front door, so not to spread germs around the home. She also keeps her daughters home from school if they are sick, so not to expose other kids to their germs.

She's also taken to hosting her middle daughter's birthday party in August before school starts instead of trying to navigate around the inevitable mid-September sickness. That helps avoid the tears and heartbreak that comes with cancelled or delayed celebrations, she says.

"I don't like back to school time," she says. "I know that we are all going to get sick to some degree. My work schedule will be affected. And I will be coughing and not feeling well as well. Worst of all, I don't like to see my kids feeling sick. I'd rather have them happy and healthy."

Check out other Ask an Expert articles from University of Utah Health Care.