Simple steps in back to school health
Back-to-school is an opportune time for families to focus on healthy lifestyle practices. Good health habits are especially important for students whose return to the close quarters of the classroom increases their exposure to illness. In our pediatric practice at Grady Memorial Hospital, we always see an uptick in patients with coughs, colds and stomach bugs after school starts.
Viruses are responsible for most childhood illness such as colds and gastroenteritis (often called the stomach flu). Typically our treatments focus on symptom relief because medications such as antibiotics cannot stop or slow a virus. Consequently, prevention is vitally important. Here are a few simple steps that can keep kids in school, sparing families the stress of childcare decisions and make-up assignments.
- Handwashing. This is probably the most important behavior to prevent the spread of disease. We recommend that school-aged children wash their hands with warm soap and water before eating, after they go to the restroom and anytime their hands become soiled. They should wash their hands for as long as it takes them to sing their ABC’s. Many schools now include a waterless hand sanitizer on their list of school supplies. Research indicates that hand sanitizers are just as effective as soap and water in killing germs.
- Flu shots. Influenza is the one virus for which we have a specific vaccine. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends an annual influenza immunization for all children and adolescents ages six months and older. Our flu vaccine typically arrives later this month or in early October. We expect to have an ample supply this year. We want children to take their shots as soon as possible so the vaccine has time to take effect before the flu hits.
- Covering your cough. The flu and other viruses are spread through fluids from the mouth and nose secretions. Children who cough or sneeze into the crooks of their elbows prevent these droplets from going into the air and infecting others.
Part of having a healthy school year is to maintain a strong immune system to ward off or shorten infections. Here are some ways children can strengthen their immunity.
- Sleep. Sleep is increasingly being emphasized as an important component of good health. Lack of sleep among young people has been linked with obesity, depression and poor learning. Children of all ages, including teen-agers, should receive at least eight hours of sleep per night, but many need more than that. We recommend eight to 10 hours. Parents should schedule regular bedtimes and encourage their children to avoid stimulating activities before going to bed that interfere with falling and staying asleep.
- Diet. You’ve heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Believe it. Students who start their day with a good breakfast are likely to be more alert in the classroom. In fact, some studies have linked breakfast with higher test scores. Some students — especially teenagers — often claim they are too rushed in the morning to have time for breakfast. But simply eating a breakfast bar with a piece of fruit on the school bus or in the car on the way to school can make a big difference in energy level the rest of the day. Some people think that skipping breakfast will help them lose weight, but just the opposite is true. Eating breakfast has been associated with maintaining a healthy weight.
- Exercise. Regular physical activity helps students sleep better, control their weight and improve immunity and mood. School-age children need at least 90 minutes of vigorous physical activity three days a week. To encourage more physical activity, their screen time — from television, computers, video games and hand-held devices — should be limited to no more than two hours a day.
- Backpacks. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that backpacks should weigh no more than 10 to 20 percent of body weight. While we have seen few backpack-related problems in our practice, we caution parents to occasionally clean out their children’s backpacks and check with school to see what is absolutely necessary to carry.
Mark Thoma, MD, is pediatrician and an active member of the Grady Memorial Hospital medical staff.