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Prepare for Kids' Healthy Return to School

Written by: Shuchi Gupta, M.D.

Published in The Enterprise & The Patriot Ledger

For many parents, the start of the school year can feel like catching a break: The kids are finally back in a routine and away all day, and family life feels like it’s back on a predictable schedule.

Then come the germs, bugs and drama. You get a note from the school nurse that children in your kid’s class are coming down with strep throat or have head lice. You hear on the news about how this flu season will be the worst in years. You hear your teen screeching in front of the bathroom mirror over an acne breakout. To top it all off, it seems that every month someone in the family has the sniffles.

This is, of course, all part of growing up. And all of the above are common issues that patients bring up during visits to my office at Compass Medical where I practice family medicine in Quincy.

While I can’t give your kid a cure for the common cold, I can suggest some ways to improve your family’s odds of staying healthy throughout the school year. Here are important steps to take:

Send germs down the drain: Hand washing is one of the best ways to stop the spread of germs. But good luck getting your kindergartner to care about that. What you can do is set routines for hand washing at home, such as after using the toilet, upon returning from school, and before eating.

Try to get your child to scrub for at least 20 seconds. That’s about as long as it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. You may be tempted to skip the sink and use alcohol-based hand sanitizers, but they won’t kill all germs, such as the norovirus, a common stomach bug. Recent studies have also found some types of bacteria can survive the rub-on gels.

Teach sharing, but not too much: While we want our kids to share toys, we don’t want them to share cups and utensils, food, combs and brushes, hats and toothbrushes. These can contribute to the spread of lice, strep and various pathogens. Try to teach your kids from an early age what is off limits. For teens, it’s especially important to avoid sharing razors, which can spread blood-borne diseases, as well as sports equipment or shoes, which can spread fungal and bacterial infections.

Get a shot in the arm: By as early as September or October, you should get everyone in your family the flu shot. Yes, by late winter you may hear about how the vaccine was a poor match for the year’s influenza viruses. But the risks associated with getting the vaccine are minimal compared with the risks of catching the full-blown flu, which can be deadly.

Keep kids active, eating right: There is no magic pill that will rid your child of the cold, or any type of viral or bacterial infection. What kids can do is try to stay healthy by getting some exercise every day, sleeping nine to 11 hours a night, drinking enough fluids, and eating nutritious foods, including a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Tell them to avoid junk food, which can weaken the immune system and contribute to inflammation.

Don’t leave kids to their own devices: While more and more schools have taken to new technology and gadgets, kids should still have their screen time limited. New research is showing the risks – social, physiological, physical – of heavy use of smartphones and other mobile gadgets. Remember, time spent in front of a screen is often time missed playing with friends and family, studying or just reflecting on the day.

Teens and hygiene: Many adolescents and teens will fret over zits. But for most mild cases, the best prevention is normal face washing and daily bathing. Eating healthfully and getting enough sleep helps, too. Trying over-the-counter products such as benzoyl peroxide may clear up more stubborn cases. Talk to your doctor if acne seems like a severe problem.

Keep checkups: Keep your kids on an annual checkup schedule with their pediatrician, even for teens and older kids. When your children are younger, this helps them ensure their vaccines are on schedule. For older kids, this can still help avoid missing shots – including the HPV vaccine and later meningitis vaccines – but it can also help us spot problems, including depression, eating disorders, anxiety and other common conditions that tend to show up later in adolescent and young-adult life.

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