With 82 million students and teachers - over a quarter of the population - expected to start school in the United States this fall, it's important that everyone do his or her part to keep himself or herself and others healthy when class is in session.
Experts from Baltimore-based LifeBridge Health, which operates Sinai and Northwest Hospitals, say that the number one thing students and teachers can do to avoid getting sick is to adopt good hand hygiene.
"I often joke that the ways to not get sick are to wash your hands and don't eat at questionable restaurants, but there's a lot of truth to that advice," says John Cmar, M.D., an internist at Sinai Hospital.
Hand washing helps prevent illness because most germs are spread when people pick them up from infected surfaces and then touch their eyes, noses or mouths. However when hands are germ-free, bugs don't usually have a way to reach the face.
According to Northwest Hospital Infection Control Manager Mary Wallace, bacteria and viruses live on many surfaces found in a school environment such as desks and tables, computer keyboards, clothing, locker room benches, coins, and doorknobs, to name a few.
"Because hands can pick up germs from so many different types of surfaces, it is critical that students wash their hands after using the restroom, before and after eating, whenever they are soiled, and periodically throughout the day," says Wallace.
Teachers and principals should not underestimate their role in helping students remain healthy through reinforcing proper hand hygiene. Kids model the behaviors of authority figures, so school officials need to be champions of hand washing.
"It's especially important that teachers and parents teach children the proper hand washing technique," says Marilyn Hanchett, R.N., a Sinai Hospital infection preventionist. "Many kids wash just their palms, missing their fingertips and areas around the thumbs and between the fingers. Unless an adult teaches them, kids don't know they are supposed to wash those areas too."
The American Society of Microbiology discovered that only 50 percent of middle and high school students say that they wash their hands after using the restroom. The statistics get even worse when one considers soap usage; only a third of females and 8 percent of males use soap. Without the cleansing effects of soap, water is less capable of removing germs and bacteria.
If your child's school does not provide soap in the restrooms - a growing problem in many schools - send a gift to the teacher: a bottle of hand sanitizer to place on his or her desk for student use. Cmar, Wallace and Hanchett all stress the importance of each classroom having its own source of alcohol-based hand rub, as it's impractical to leave the room to use a restroom sink to wash one's hands as often as is necessary.
While hand washing greatly reduces the odds of catching a bug, sometimes sickness is inevitable. If your child contracts a bug and you're wondering if the illness warrants a sick day, Cmar recommends that you ask your child's doctor.
"People should have a low threshold about when to call their doctors to ask if their sick kids need to stay home or if they need professional medical attention," says Cmar.
In most cases, sick people should stay home to ensure they get rest to aid recovery and to avoid coming into contact with others so they don't pass along the virus. Cmar adds that the length of time that someone is contagious varies from illness to illness - another reason to consult your doctor.
Because avoiding other people is not always possible, encourage your kids to get into the habit of covering their coughs and sneezes. The old advice of covering one's mouth with one's hand is bad because hands are constantly touching other surfaces, so teach your children to cough or sneeze into a tissue or the crook of their elbows. If they do cough or sneeze into their hands, make sure they wash them promptly afterward.
"It's really the basic stuff - hand washing - that helps us prevent the spread of disease," says Cmar. "There aren't any magic pills or mega doses of vitamins that protect us from cold and flu viruses. It comes down to just this: wash your hands, and don't rub your face."