Once school begins, a host of common illnesses begin to be passed around in the community. The close environment of the classroom provides easier transmission of infections from child to child and, subsequently, from child to family. Fortunately, most are caused by viruses and are self-limiting.
Common viral infections are readily passed from person to person by direct contact, contact with infected objects, or through the air with coughing or sneezing. Colds are the most familiar. The problem is that by the time a youngster develops viral symptoms, they have been most contagious a few days earlier. This means that classmates have been exposed before anyone realizes a child is sick. Luckily, a generally healthy child will fight off a viral infection within a matter of days.
Cold viruses infect the respiratory tract, so symptoms can be in the nose, sinuses, ears, throat and chest. Most sore throats, earaches, sinus infections and bronchitis are due to common viruses. Therefore, antibiotics, which only fight off bacteria, are not effective or appropriate to treat most of these infections. Rest, fluids, treatment of symptoms (fever, aches) and time are all that is needed.
Pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is usually due to a virus. Consequently, most of these infections will improve in a couple of days without specific treatment. They can be very contagious with direct contact, and will commonly spread through classrooms. Usually there is matting of the eye in the morning, the white part of the eye and inside of the lids are red, and there is mucous discharge throughout the day. In contrast, bacterial conjunctivitis, which is much less common, is characterized by constant green or yellow drainage from the eye throughout the day. Antibiotics are generally needed to eliminate these infections.
Stomach viruses are commonly transmitted through exposure at school. Again, the most contagious time period may be before symptoms are clearly evident. Fever, aches, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can all occur with these infections. Fluid replacement is the most important treatment. Children with nausea, vomiting and diarrhea can become dehydrated quickly due to their small size. Start with very small amounts of clear fluids (teaspoons initially) and work your way up… slowly. Oral rehydration solutions are also available at most pharmacies and grocery stores.
Transmission of these common viral illnesses can be greatly reduced by simple handwashing. School and day-care workers are generally instructed as to the importance of this most-important preventive tool. It is equally important to practice good handwashing at home.
As I stated initially, virus infections are usually eliminated from the body through natural defenses within seven to ten days. Symptoms beyond this time or out-of-proportion to usual viral symptoms may indicate a more serious infection. Many bacteria already present in our bodies will take advantage of a weakened immune state and cause the infection to worsen. As with any disease, if there is any question as to the nature or severity of your child’s condition, check with your doctor.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.