Top 3 Common Infections to Look Out for This School Season

There’s nothing like the phrase “someone in my class has head lice” to ruin a perfectly good afternoon. Suddenly, you imagine yourself canceling plans to sterilize heads and home. But don’t call out of work just yet.

“Parents often panic at the mention of head lice, pink eye or ringworm because they know these common infections and infestations can be highly contagious,” said Martha E. McCarty, MD, a pediatrician at Alewife Brook Community Pediatrics, a Lahey Health practice in Arlington, Massachusetts. “These are common problems in schools, because they’re all spread through physical contact and children touch each other more often than adults. But just because one kid has pink eye or lice doesn’t mean the entire class has it.”

What causes these common infections? How can you protect your children’s health this school year? And if your kid gets infected (or infested), how can you keep them from spreading it?

Head Lice

Head lice can be a major hassle, but they’re not a hazard to your or your children’s health.

“Head lice don’t spread diseases,” Dr. McCarty said. “They’re not a sign of poor hygiene, and they’re not as contagious as people think.”

Head lice are most commonly transmitted through direct, head-to-head contact. Lice can’t hop or jump. They hold tightly to hair at the scalp and don’t usually leave a healthy head unless another is close by.

It’s possible to indirectly spread lice by sharing personal belongings such as combs or hats, but this is much less likely. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Centers for Disease Control both advise against keeping children out of school because of head lice.

There are many effective over-the-counter treatments for head lice per the AAP. If there are any doubts, have a school nurse confirm the presence of head lice before keeping the child out of school or treating unnecessarily.

“It can be difficult to tell the difference between nits [lice eggs] and dandruff or other debris in the hair, so parents often end up treating phantom lice,” Dr. McCarty said.

Treatment

  • Check all household members and other close contacts.

  • Treat only those with an active infestation or who share a bed with someone who does.

  • Pay close attention to medication instructions and re-treat as directed.

  • Use a nit comb to remove any nits and lice from the hair or scalp.

  • Machine-wash and dry clothing, bed linens and other cloth items used by an infested person during the two days before treatment (or seal these items in a plastic bag for two weeks).

  • Soak combs and brushes in hot water (130 F) for 10 minutes.

  • Vacuum the floor and furniture where an infested person sat or lay.

Prevention

  • Encourage your child not to share hats, combs or brushes with classmates.

Ringworm

Ringworm is a very common skin infection caused by a fungus. Its name comes from the red, ring-shaped rash it produces.

“Ringworm goes by many names, depending on which part of the body is infected,” Dr. McCarty said. “Athlete’s foot and jock itch are forms of ringworm. Both cause the skin to be itchy, red, scaly and cracked. When you get ringworm on your scalp, you usually get a red, circular bald spot.”

The fungus that causes ringworm can live on most any surface. You can also get ringworm from infected people.

Treatment

  • For mild to moderate ringworm on the skin, you can try over-the-counter antifungal creams and powders. Contact your doctor if the infection doesn’t go away or gets worse.

  • If ringworm is severe or appears on the scalp, take your child to see their doctor.

  • Encourage infected children to avoid contact with others, avoid touching the infected area and wash their hands frequently.

Prevention

Encourage your children to:

  • Keep skin clean and dry.

  • Wear shoes in locker rooms or public showers.

  • Change their socks and underwear every day.

  • Refrain from sharing clothing, towels or sports gear with other people.

  • Wash their hands with soap after playing with pets.

  • Shower immediately after close-contact sports, such as wrestling, and keep all sports gear clean.

  • Avoid physical contact with infected people.

Pink Eye

Conjunctivitis (or pink eye) is a common eye infection that can be caused by a virus, different types of bacteria or even allergens.

“Viral conjunctivitis usually occurs along with a cold or respiratory infection,” Dr. McCarty said. “Bacterial conjunctivitis occurs when bacteria gets in the eye, so it’s more common in children, because they’re less diligent hand-washers and are more likely to touch their faces.”

Both viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are highly contagious and can be spread through physical contact with an infected person, coughing and sneezing, or touching your eyes after touching a germy surface. For children younger than 3 years old, some bacterial conjunctivitis may be associated with an ear infection and should be treated by a doctor.

“Pink eye gets its name because the infection makes the whites of your eyes turn pink or red,” Dr. McCarty said. “It can also make your eyes leaky, cause an itching or burning sensation, or make you feel like you have something in your eye.”

Pink eye will often clear up on its own within a couple weeks, but if the condition is severe or caused by certain types of bacteria, your child might need prescription medication.

Treatment

  • Use cold compresses to relieve swelling.

  • Wash discharge from around the eyes several times a day using a clean, wet washcloth or a fresh cotton ball. If your child has thick discharge or crusted eyes, call your doctor as your child may need antibiotics.

  • See a doctor if the condition becomes painful, if your child develops a sensitivity to light or blurred vision, if eyes become intensely red, or if symptoms get worse or don’t improve.

  • To prevent pink eye from spreading, encourage infected children to avoid touching their eyes, wash their hands frequently, avoid touching other people and avoid swimming pools.

Prevention

  • Advise your children against sharing eyeglasses, makeup, contact lenses or eye drops with others.

  • Vaccinate for diseases associated with conjunctivitis, including measles, rubella, chickenpox, pneumonia and the flu.

Taking preventative measures can help ensure your child won’t fall victim to any of these common infections once the school year begins. For more information, or to seek treatment from a pediatrician, make an appointment with your provider.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.

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