As summer winds down, I'm excited about all the good things the school year will bring my kids: new skills, new friends, and exciting discoveries. But I'm also wary of a certain classmate that will join them: germs.
With kids working and playing in close contact and sharing supplies and equipment, schools can be hotbeds for infection. Each year, K-12 students miss about 60 million school days due to colds and the flu combined.
So in addition to buying new clothes and school supplies, I'm preparing my kids for the school year with five things they can do to reduce the chances of spreading infections and getting sick.
Go to Bed
Sleep is important. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend at least 10 hours per night for school-age kids. In addition to helping children concentrate—and behave—at school, adequate sleep strengthens the immune system and fights off infections.
Bring a Water Bottle
Staying hydrated during the school day produces a number of health benefits. Sending your child off with a water bottle is a good way to encourage them to drink enough water at school. Having their own water bottle also helps them avoid using drinking fountains that can harbor germs and foster the spread of infections.
Wash Your Hands—a Lot
People, and kids in particular, touch their eyes, nose, and mouth frequently, transmitting the germs on their hands into their bodies. Washing your hands with soap and water is one of the best defenses against infections. It reduces the risk of respiratory infection by approximately 24 percent and gastrointestinal infections (e.g., diarrhea) by more than 30 percent.
Kids should wash their hands after going to the bathroom, after recess, and before eating. Hand sanitizer helps, but it isn't as effective as soap and water.
Cover Your Coughs and Sneezes
Good respiratory etiquette helps reduce the spread of infections in schools. Parents and teachers should instruct kids to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. Using a tissue is best, but if one isn't available, kids should cough or sneeze into their elbow or shirt sleeve, keeping germs off their hands.
Get a Flu Shot
An estimated 5 to 20 percent of the population gets the flu each year. For many, it's just an inconvenience. But for others, the flu is very serious. On average, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized each year with flu-related complications. Flu-related deaths range from 3,000 to nearly 50,000 per year, depending on the virus.
Young kids are at higher risk for complications, so preventing the flu is key. The best way to do this is to get them vaccinated each year. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that everyone over the age of six months receive an annual flu vaccine. It's possible to get the flu even if you've had the vaccine, but the severity and length of the illness will be reduced.
Jeanne S. Ringel is director of the Population Health Program at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.