7 back-to-school bugs and how to spot the symptoms

8th Sep 17 | Family

A GP outlines the symptoms of common illnesses children can catch from other pupils and gives tips on how to reduce the risk of infection.

Health professional checking sick little girl

The school bus probably won’t be the only thing young pupils catch this academic year – back-to-school bugs can be rife in some classrooms.

While there’s often no realistic way to prevent children catching infections at school, being able to spot the symptoms means parents can seek proper treatment for their young ones, and potentially stop them spreading the illness.

Dr Seth Rankin, founder of the London Doctors Clinic, advises parents to be up-to-date with their children’s immunisations and ensure they get sufficient sleep and wash their hands frequently. Packing a travel-sized hand sanitiser in school bags is a good preventative measure, although he admits: “Some back-to-school bugs can’t be completely avoided.”

Here are some common illnesses whose symptoms parents should be on the lookout for…

A group of schoolchildren (Thinkstock/PA)Close contact at school can pass on bugs (Thinkstock/PA)

1. Chickenpox

Chickenpox is a common childhood illness and almost impossible to avoid. It causes a rash of red, itchy spots that turn into fluid-filled blisters after about 12 hours. A few days later, the blisters will crust over to form scabs that fall off after a week or two.

The rash normally appears in clusters behind the ears, on the face and scalp, and under arms – on most parts of the body, in fact. The condition tends to be mild and clears up naturally in a week or two. Calamine lotion can ease the itching.

2. Colds and flu

For standard symptoms such as coughing, fever, sneezing, sore throats and body aches, resting is the best medicine, along with drinking plenty of water. If fever persists,  children shouldn’t go to school and should see a GP.

3. Hand foot and mouth disease

This infection causes mouth ulcers and spots on the hands and feet. It’s most common in children under 10 but can affect older children and adults. It usually clears up by itself within a week to 10 days.

Early symptoms include a fever, loss of appetite, coughing and sore throat. After a day or two, painful mouth ulcers develop and small, red spots may appear on fingers, palms and soles. But Dr Rankin stresses: “The infection isn’t related to the foot and mouth disease which affects cattle, sheep and pigs.”

4. Measles

Measles is a highly infectious viral illness and early symptoms can include a runny nose, red eyes, swollen eyelids, sneezing and fever. A few days later, a red-brown spotty rash appears and lasts for about a week. It starts behind the ears, before spreading around the head and neck, and eventually to the legs and the rest of the body.

Anyone can get measles, although it’s most common in young children and typically clears by itself in about a week to 10 days if there are no complications. But measles can be a serious illness and up to one in 20 infected children develop pneumonia, while one-two infected children in every thousand die from it. A similar number are left with deafness or intellectual disability.

“Make sure your children get the MMR immunisation,” Dr Rankin urges. “Their life, and those of their friends, may depend on it.”

5. Tonsillitis

Doctor examining girl's throat (Thinkstock/PA) Open wide… (Thinkstock/PA)

Tonsillitis is inflammation of the tonsils, usually caused by a viral infection or,  less commonly, a bacterial infection. The condition is most common in children, teenagers and young adults.

The main symptom is a sore throat with red swollen tonsils. Others include white pus-filled spots on the tonsils, pain on swallowing, a fever, coughing,  headache, tiredness, pain in the ears or neck, and swollen glands in the neck. Bed rest and plenty of fluid will aid a speedy recovery.

6. Scarlet fever

Scarlet fever is an infection that causes a blotchy, pink-red rash. It’s most common in young children but can affect people of any age.

It often starts with a sore throat, headache and fever, and a rash appears 12-48 hours later. This starts as red blotches but turns into a pinkish-red rash that feels like sandpaper. The rash spreads to other areas, commonly the ears, neck, elbows, thighs and groin. It will turn white if you press a glass on it. Once a child has had scarlet fever, it’s unlikely they’ll get it again.

7. Stomach bugs

Children shouldn’t attend school if they’re vomiting or have diarrhoea, and parents should contact a GP if symptoms persist for more than 24 hours. Suffering children should drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Stomach bugs aren’t usually serious and can be treated with antibiotics prescribed by a GP if necessary.

© Press Association 2017

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