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Published on November 20, 2017

Germs abound when children are together in schoolGerms at school

School children share books, computers, desks, bathrooms and gym equipment.

They also share germs.

To help limit the spread, parents can teach some simple lessons in hygiene before children reach school age, said pediatrician Dawnnica K. Eastman, MD, of Seaside Pediatrics in West Yarmouth.

“The big thing is handwashing,” she said.

Children should learn this habit as soon as they’re able to rub their hands together under a faucet, she said. They need to learn to wash every time they go to the bathroom and before they eat. Most diarrheal illnesses are spread by poor hygiene, Dr. Eastman said.

“Little kids tend to rub palms together, rinse and that’s it,” Dr. Eastman said. Parents need to supervise to ensure their children are washing adequately. 

Here’s an exercise from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to teach kids about how germs are spread by contact, and the need to wash hands thoroughly.

Place a little lotion on a child’s hands and have him or her rub them together to spread it evenly. Then place a pinch of glitter in one palm and have the child make a fist. The glitter represents germs. Then have the child rub his or her hands together, then shake hands with another child. Ask both children to try and clean their hands with paper towels. Then try washing their hands with soap and water. Discuss how the glitter spread from the original pinch and how much washing it took to remove it all.

Because the school year coincides with the start of cold and flu season, this often means catching – or spreading – a cold. Young children catch about 12 colds a year, she said.

“We definitely see kids get sick a lot in the fall season,” Dr. Eastman said. “The first few years of school are when they get sick a lot.”

To help limit the spread of cold viruses, children should be taught to cough or sneeze into their elbows, if a tissue is not available, and to wash their hands after blowing their noses and properly disposing of a dirty tissue, she said.

The CDC also recommends children wash their hands after playing outside, touching animals and shaking hands with others.

Other Problems

Kids can catch more than colds or the flu in school. Close contact can also spread head lice, the annoying bane of young families.

“School is definitely a breeding ground for lice,” Dr. Eastman said. “Parents, if they see a child with it, everyone in the household needs to be treated.”

To help prevent transmission, parents should teach their children not to share hats, Dr. Eastman said.

Head lice occur most commonly among preschool and elementary school children, and are not a sign of uncleanliness, according to the CDC. Since the insects can only crawl – not jump or fly – they can spread via shared clothing, bedding, stuffed animals, hair ribbons, brushes and combs, but are mainly spread by head-to-head contact.

While they probably won’t be brushing their teeth at school, Dr. Eastman said parents should be instructing their children how to brush thoroughly and regularly, she said. Poor dental hygiene, often combined with a poor diet high in carbohydrates, promotes cavities, which are entirely preventable.

“It’s amazing to me how many kids admit to me that they don’t brush their teeth every day,” she said.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, dental caries – the disease that causes cavities – is the most common chronic childhood disease. Caries results when bacteria form a film on teeth, then secrete acid as they eat sugar and other carbohydrates. The acid breaks down tooth enamel and a cavity forms.

The academy recommends regular brushing with fluoride toothpaste, professional dental cleanings and limiting between-meal snacks.

Parents should brush their young child’s teeth twice a day until they master the skill on their own, according to the CDC. After that, parents should supervise their children, making sure they are doing a thorough job and using the proper amount of toothpaste.

According to the CDC, your child’s chance of getting cavities can be higher if they eat and drink a lot of sugary foods and drinks, especially between meals

If children learn proper hygiene lessons at home, they can establish habits they’ll continue at school, Dr. Eastman said.

“At home, parents do a lot for them,” she said. “Let them take more and more responsibility.”