LEWISTOWN - When kids leave school for the day, they're bringing home more than just homework. They're going home with the thousands, perhaps millions, of germs they've been exposed to throughout the day.
Germs are the reason why the sniffles, the fevers, the sore throats and the coughs, also know as the common cold, begin almost as soon as school starts, said Dr. Ismail Ozhan Dedeoglu, a pediatrician with Geisinger-Lewistown.
"Germs are everywhere and easily accessible by kids no matter the age," Dedeoglu said. "When students return to school, their exposure to germs is increased which can lead to an outbreak of the common cold, strep throat or whopping cough. In worst cases, it can lead to the flu."
According to a study by the National Education Association, the germiest place in school is the water fountain, with 2.7 million aerobic bacteria per square inch, followed by cafeteria trays, with 33,800 aerobic bacteria per square inch. The list also includes water faucets, cafeteria plates, computer keyboards and toilet seats.
"The key to keeping children healthy is prevention," Dedeoglu said. "Parents need to teach their children good hygiene habits like hand washing and coughing into the shoulder. Schools should also have policies and make sure they are applied."
Health policies usually include having hand sanitizer in every classroom and enforcing hand washing, said Heather Eagle, school nurse at Indian Valley Elementary and Intermediate School. In the younger grades, classrooms have hand washing stations for children to use, she said.
"While hand sanitizer is helpful, the best method of killing germs is washing your hands," Eagle said. "At home, parents should make sure their kids eat healthy food, take vitamins and get an adequate amount of sleep every night to keep the immune system healthy."
The 2013-2014 Mifflin County Parent Handbook states that students must receive the required immunizations, including diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, rubella, mumps, chicken pox and meningococcal, before attending school in their respective grade.
"State immunization requirements make it absolutely necessary that proper immunization be a condition for admission into school," reads the handbook. "The only exception to this policy is if parents object to immunization on the basis of religious or medical grounds."
Childhood immunizations can prevent many diseases before they begin to spread, said Dr. John Pagnotto, family medicine physician at Geisinger-Lewistown. However, another important part of prevention is knowing when to keep kids home from school as it's common for children to have six to 12 illnesses a year, ranging from mild to severe, he said.
"Parents need to balance a child's school attendance with the risk of spreading these illnesses to other children, teachers and family members," Pagnotto said. "Sometimes it's wise to keep a child with a minor illness home from school in order to prevent the spread of a contagious disease."
Fever is a common symptom of infection and children should stay home until the fever is gone for at least 24 hours, Pagnotto said. Vomiting or diarrhea is also a sign to keep children home as the body is working to rid itself of germs and can be contagious, he said. Children with known contagious illnesses, like impetigo, pinkeye, chicken pox or whopping cough, should not attend school, states the parent handbook. Depending on the case, a child may only return to school once they are fever free for more than 24 hours or have clearance from a physician.
For more information on the common cold, including prevention tips and symptoms, visit www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/. Contact the schools for a copy of the parent handbook.