Whether you have a child starting preschool or you are a college student returning for your senior year, August can bring excitement and trepidation.
You buy supplies, worry about whether teachers will be supportive, and hope for good relationships with peers. However, getting sick at the start of school is something far too many of us are familiar with. Why does this happen?
Viruses love school. Rhinovirus (the common cold) starts circulating like a wildfire each year almost the moment the school bell rings. Respiratory viruses are called “density-dependent.” That means that the more people are put into an area, the more the virus can spread. Schools, college dorms, and daycare are all great high-density places to spread. Although a fall virus is usually a minor individual inconvenience, it can have a big overall impact on students, teachers and parents.
Parents lose an average of three workdays due to children having rhinovirus per year per child, and about 83% of children miss school days each year due to a respiratory infection, including rhinovirus and influenza. Note that the influenza vaccine is not perfect, but it will cut your risk of getting the flu if exposed in half, and can greatly reduce the severity and recovery time of the virus if you are infected.
Viral attacks can be worst for students who have another condition, like asthma. More than one in 10 adults and children in Utah have asthma. The most common cause of an asthma attack isn’t dust or exercise — it’s a respiratory virus. The two conditions are so connected that each year there is a spike in asthma attacks about 17 days after school starts. Public health officials call it the “September asthma epidemic.” Please note that if you have asthma and are not regularly taking controller medications, be sure to start taking them regularly again in August. It may help you stave off a trip to the emergency room in September.
Gastrointestinal viruses can be just as bad — or worse — than respiratory viruses. The two most common gastrointestinal viruses are norovirus and rotavirus. Thankfully, there is a vaccine for rotavirus, which most children receive early in life. The vaccine is not perfectly effective, so you still need to take precautions. Hand sanitizer can help, but is also not perfect. One of the biggest weaknesses of hand sanitizer is that it does not kill norovirus. So even if you are using it 50 times a day, which I wouldn’t recommend, you could end up having a really bad night in the bathroom.
Norovirus is extremely contagious. Once it starts spreading through a family or friend group, it can be hard to stop until most everyone has had their turn. For the best protection, wash hands with soap and warm water on a regular basis, using hand sanitizer when soap is not readily available. Also be careful to reduce the number of times you touch your mouth, nose and eyes in between hand washings. If some lucky person in your house does get a stomach virus, use bleach-based products to sanitize surfaces.
Am I helping you get excited to go back to school yet?
Vaccines, sanitation and hand-washing can interrupt a lot of viral spread. But there is one slightly less convenient solution to keeping healthy in school, that is to stay home if you or your child are sick. It can be frustrating to miss class or work for a stuffy nose. It means more work when you go back, loss of pay and maybe less days off in the future.
However, if you can stay home, it is the respectful thing to do. We have a responsibility to others to help keep them safe. Even if you or your child don’t have asthma, are near pregnant women or older adults for whom viruses are much worse, I guarantee someone else in the room with you does.
College students can be especially stressed out over the idea of staying home sick. What if I miss a quiz, or practice or important information? At the beginning of each semester, I stand in front of my students and tell them that they are not allowed to come to class sick. It is against class policy. If they have respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms they are especially supposed to stay home.
As a result, students know that they are supported in being healthy and can prioritize keeping their fellow students protected. If more workplaces, families and classrooms do the same, we will all be better able to learn, work and teach this upcoming school year.
Protecting against viruses in our community takes participation from everyone. Let’s work together to make a happy and healthy start to school this coming month.