Lessons in lurgy

Classrooms are a prime breeding ground for bugs and viruses. As the new school year approaches, we outline the most common playground illnesses.

  • Dinky Dr with teddy
    Lisa Salmon
    By   | Journalist
    Last updated: 01 October 2013, 12:49 BST


    The dreaded chickenpox - highly contagious and unmistakable with its itchy rash, starting as small red spots which develop into fluid-filled blisters and eventually scabs. There may be mild flu-like symptoms beforehand too. It's most common in children under 10, and the severity of the rash can range from just a few spots to covering most of the body.

    While unsightly and extremely itchy, for most kids it isn't serious, and lots of parents hope to get it out of the way sooner rather than later.

    "In pre-school children, chickenpox is a good illness to get because you're immune to it afterwards and it doesn't cause a lot of trouble," says Macgregor.

    "If you've got a generally healthy child, chickenpox is a bother and can be disruptive. It's not usually a terrible illness but it can cause a lot of problems for children and adults who have immune problems."

    It can also cause pregnancy complications, although this is rare, because most women will have had the virus as children.


    Measles, mumps and rubella

    These three highly infectious conditions are usually mild, but can have serious, potentially fatal, complications, including meningitis, swelling of the brain (encephalitis) and deafness.

    They can also lead to pregnancy complications, and mumps - characterised by painful swelling at the sides of the face - can spread to the testes in post-pubescent males, which can lead to infertility.

    Since the MMR vaccine was introduced in 1988, it's rare for children in the UK to catch the illnesses, although there have been measles outbreaks in recent years.

    Dr Macgregor urges any parents whose children haven't had the MMR jab to get them vaccinated immediately. Although there was a catch-up programme after the MMR vaccination scare in the late Nineties, some children missed out on having the jab.


  • Boy with fever
    Lisa Salmon
    By   | Journalist
    Last updated: 01 October 2013, 12:49 BST

    Slapped cheek syndrome

    This parvovirus infection can cause mild flu-like symptoms, followed several days later by a bright red rash on both cheeks, which may spread to other parts of the body and cause discomfort and itching.

    It can cause problems in pregnancy, but often goes unrecognised in children as it can be very mild and usually doesn't require treatment unless accompanied by a high temperature or symptoms worsen.

    Scarlet fever

    The bacterial illness, which has reappeared in recent years, can be spread through coughs and sneezes and causes a sore throat, fever and a widespread, fine pink-red rash. It mainly affects children aged two to eight years.

    "In years gone by, scarlet fever used to cause dread," says Macgregor. "It's come back but it's probably not as virulent as it was, and there are better treatments."

    When the fever and rash subside after four or five days, there can be peeling of the skin round the fingers which alarms parents, although this is often after the acute stage of the illness has passed.

  • girl with nits
    Lisa Salmon
    By   | Journalist
    Last updated: 01 October 2013, 12:49 BST

    Head lice

    Head lice are extremely common, particularly when children are younger and huddle together more, making it easy for lice to jump from head to head.

    The tiny blood-sucking insects, whose eggs are known as nits, can make the scalp inflamed and itchy.

    Ian Burgess, director of the Medical Entomology Centre, says: "Head lice were once regarded as a problem that other families had, but they're now so common among young children that an infestation can occur at any time, no matter how careful parents are to keep them clear."

    He suggests parents use a good louse comb at least twice a week to comb through hair root to tip. If lice are found, use an approved treatment from a pharmacy and always follow the instructions, as a second treatment is vital.

    He says all members of the family should be checked and treated if necessary. "The louse has been the bane of mankind throughout history and shows no sign of giving up its place in the league table of annoying pests," says Burgess. "Following these rules might just mean your child remains free of the problem this academic year."


  • girl with cold
    Lisa Salmon
    By   | Journalist
    Last updated: 01 October 2013, 12:49 BST

    Coughs and colds

    The rhinovirus (coughs and colds) is the most common type of virus and can be more severe in younger children, as their airways are narrower and their tonsils and adenoids bigger.

    As they're spread by droplets - coughs, sneezes and on hands - they're far more common in winter when children are huddled together inside, doors shut, says Macgregor.

    "To some parents, particularly those who've moved to a new area [and 'germ pool'], it feels like their child has a cold or virus all the time," he says. "They're probably right to some extent, as while the virus itself only lasts two or three days, the effects like stuffiness and a cough can last a lot longer. But when a parent thinks a child has had a virus for three or four months, the truth is they've probably had four or five viruses."

    Sickness and diarrhoea

    Gastroenteritis - inflammation of the stomach and bowel - is often caused by norovirus and rotavirus when it comes to kids. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhoea, usually lasting three to five days, and it can be reduced by encouraging children to wash their hands, says Macgregor, as such bugs are spread through contact.

    "We know that the more you wash your hands, the less they spread. But it's the children that need to wash their hands, and you've got to be realistic," he adds.



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