Five common infections kids pick up at school

While many parents and schools are focused on preventing COVID-19 outbreaks, it’s important to remember that there are other infections that also pose a risk to children’s health. Here’s what parents need to know about five common infections for which their school-aged children are at risk.

1. Conjunctivitis

Conjunctivitis, also called pink eye, is a common infection many kids pick up at daycare centers and schools. This condition happens when the conjunctiva (the clear membrane that lines the eyeball and inner eyelids) becomes infected or inflamed. 

While conjunctivitis can be caused by allergies, bacteria, and viruses, viral conjunctivitis is the most common of the three causes, accounting for 80% of conjunctivitis cases.

Because conjunctivitis is highly contagious, it’s important that children wash their hands frequently, and that hard surfaces including desks, doorknobs, sink handles and plastic toys are frequently disinfected.

2. Colds

More than 200 viruses can cause the infection we know as the “common cold.”  Symptoms include a low-grade fever, nasal congestion, fatigue, headaches, watery eyes, scratchy throat, and cough. 

Colds are much more common in children than adults. While the average adult gets 2-4 colds a year, school-aged children average 6-8 colds per year.  Children younger than 2 can get as many as 10 colds a year!

The viruses that cause the common cold can be spread through respiratory droplets or by direct contact with viral particles. To decrease the transmission of these viruses, caregivers and teachers should frequently disinfect hard surfaces, and encourage kids to wash their hands well, avoid touching their faces, and spend time outdoors as much as possible.

3. Strep throat

Strep throat is a bacterial infection caused by the Group A strain of streptococcus.

The symptoms of strep throat include a fever, exudate (“white spots”) on the tonsils, swollen lymph nodes in the neck, and a sore throat.

Strep throat is most common in children ages 5-15. It rarely affects children under 3 years of age, and rarely causes a runny nose or a cough.

If your child has symptoms of strep, it’s important to seek prompt medical attention since strep can lead to heart and kidney issues if left untreated.

4. Gastroenteritis

Gastroenteritis, commonly called the “stomach flu,” can cause abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and a fever. It’s most commonly caused by viruses that infect and inflame the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

Since viral gastroenteritis is highly contagious, it’s important for children to frequently wash their hands, especially after going to the bathroom and before eating. And it’s important for anyone with gastroenteritis symptoms to stay home until their symptoms have resolved.

While most cases of viral gastroenteritis resolve on their own within 72 hours, it’s important to note that children with prolonged symptoms, abdominal pain, a high fever, or signs of dehydration require urgent medical attention.

5. Influenza

More than 100 strains of influenza can cause the infection we call “the flu.” Rates of influenza in the U.S. typically are highest from November through March, and as many as 26,000 children are hospitalized with flu-related complications every year.

Flu shots are approved for children ages 6 months and up and are one of the most effective ways to prevent kids from getting ill with the flu.

If your child does develop symptoms of influenza, including fever, headache, vomiting or diarrhea, body aches, and fatigue, they should stay home until they’re symptom-free.

Children with severe symptoms, prolonged symptoms, or underlying health conditions should be evaluated by a health care provider to confirm their diagnosis and evaluate them for any serious complications.

If you're in the Northwest, a recent measles outbreak has caused concern from public health authorities. To keep staff and students safe, school districts are requiring proof of immunization, which involves a titer test for measles.


Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant