Beat Back-to-School Germs

Sick high school girl lies in bed, reading a thermometer with a phone by her ear

By Scott Costley, DO, Nuvance Health Medical Practice - Kingston Primary Care


While COVID-19 pandemic response measures disrupted last year’s back-to-school germ season, the return to closer quarters, sharing items and mask reluctance may be the return of common childhood illnesses, including upset stomachs, colds, viruses and flu.


Schools are notorious for being germ-spreading zones. On average, an elementary school child will have eight to 12 colds or cases of the flu each school year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For an older child, it is about half that.

Prevent sickness tips

Arm yourself with these tips for how to identify, treat and prevent common school-year sicknesses:

  • Stomach flu, or gastroenteritis, is extremely common among schoolchildren. Symptoms include diarrhea and/or vomiting and cramps, sometimes with nausea and loss of appetite. For illnesses lasting a few days, prevent dehydration with lots of clear liquids. Best prevention tip: Wash hands with soap; lather and scrub between fingers and under nails. Soap is better than hand sanitizer, especially when hands are soiled or after using the bathroom.

  • Pink eye’s most telling symptoms include runny yellow to green discharge and red, irritated eyes. Bacterial conjunctivitis is treated with antibiotic eye drops prescribed by a physician. Pink eye can also be an allergic reaction or viral. Best prevention tip: Avoid touching eyes with unwashed hands.

  • Strep throat is diagnosed with a throat swab and treated with antibiotics. To determine if a doctor’s visit is warranted, look for fever, severe throat soreness, difficulty swallowing and loss of appetite. Best prevention tip: Keep toothbrushes separate and throw them out after 24 hours after starting antibiotics.

  • A cold from a virus can also make it painful to swallow. Coughs, runny nose and congestion without fever are generally ways to tell colds apart from strep. Best prevention tip: Boost the immune system with healthy foods, daily exercise, stress reduction and a good night’s sleep.

  • The flu causes a high fever of about 101 or higher, extreme tiredness and body aches. Flu season is October through May. Best prevention tip: A flu vaccine is the best defense against this respiratory illness. Ask your family physician or pediatrician when they expect to receive the 2021-22 vaccine and make an appointment.

  • COVID-19 symptoms include fever or chills, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle aches, headaches, loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. If your child has COVID-19 symptoms, they should stay home, have a telemedicine visit with their doctor and limit their interactions with others. Consider vaccination for children who are eligible.

  • With any of the common back-to-school sicknesses, don’t underestimate the benefits of a balanced diet with lots of leafy greens, good hand hygiene and plenty of sleep for your child.

Good hygiene is key

Parental encouragement is key for children to properly wash their hands for at least 20 seconds immediately after school, before all meals and prior to bed.


Finally, cleaning alone does not remove germs from household surfaces. Use a multipurpose cleaner or sanitizer. Inspect the product label and look for “disinfectant” and follow the directions.


These everyday preventive actions can slow and avert the spread of illnesses, which lead to missed school and work, along with unplanned trips to the doctor and in some cases even hospitalizations.


Dr. Costley is a family medicine physician in Kingston, NY, who sees adults, children and infants. Nuvance Health offers primary care in locations close to home and via telemedicine. You can search for a primary care provider near you here or learn more about primary care services here.

Scott Costley, DO

For more back-to-school tips, visit Nuvance Healthline