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How to Prevent Back-to-School Germs

Headed for school this fall? Whether it's grade school or a dormitory, they are breeding grounds for infectious viruses. Learn how to protect yourselves or your kids.

By
Sanaz Majd, MD,
August 24, 2017
Episode #246

We can all agree that schools everywhere, from preschool through college, are generally a monumental germfest. What can we expect, with lots of snot-dripping, sneezing, coughing kids and young adults who may not be too keen on washing those infested hands or covering their cough? What’s even more daunting is living in an enclosed space with these disseminating bugs: the dorms.

These viruses are not only easily carried and spread like wildfire, but are incurable—once plagued with them, they must simply play out its course.  Antibiotics don’t cure viruses, only bacteria. This is another pervasive myth that I dispel for my patients every year. 

But they still wreak havoc on our daily lives, causing missed school days and work days for parents caring for their sick kiddos. It can interfere with your studies, and even test-taking performance. No one wants to be sick at test-time (unless you’d rather play hooky).

Before heading off to school this fall, it’s imperative to learn how to protect yourself and others. But what can you do?

The Typical Viral Course

First, before you sprint to the doctor’s office with the first sign of a sore throat, it may be useful to understand the typical viral course. The typical virus takes about 7-10 days to resolve (refer to this diagram).  The first 3-5 days are the toughest, when our symptoms tend to worsen with each passing day.  After the peak in symptom severity, however, it starts to gradually improve daily thereafter. By days 7-10, most patients feel significantly better.  If you don’t have improvement by day 10, it’s now the time to see the doctor.

How to Prevent a Viral Illness

Although a cure for these viruses does not yet exist, the symptoms can certainly be treated. If you’d like to learn more, check out my 5 tips to treat the common cold in adults here. FYI, cough and cold medications are not recommended for kids younger than 6, as they may induce arrhythmias and increase risk of hospitalizations.

However, the best way to manage a cold and flu virus is really to prevent acquiring it in the first place.  Transmission is more common through the air, but can also spread via touch. Prevention is not difficult to achieve, but it does require everyone to be on the same page and abide by a few (yet simple) rules:

Protect Your Hands

Wash your hands frequently, and teach your classmates how to properly wash their hands. Scrubbing for a minimum of 20 seconds is necessary in order to ensure full eradication of germs. The CDC recommends a neat trick that may be useful for the youngsters—scrub while singing the “happy birthday” song twice from beginning to end. If soap and water are not readily available, carry an antibacterial hand sanitizer as backup. 

Be cognizant of your hands and what they come into contact with at all times. Do not touch your face and, if you do, wash your hands right away. Touching your face with your hands is how it is spread to others by direct contact or via middle-men objects such as doorknobs or elevator buttons.

If you have shared space, such as a dorm room, office or computer, disinfect the keyboard, mouse, chair handles, door handles, bathrooms, and shared toilet space. And of course, do not share cups, food, or eating utensils. And no kissing allowed.

Protect the Air

If you are sick, the best way to prevent air-transfer is to wear a mask.  Understandably, however, going to school with a mask on may not be a pleasant experience, unless you’re Batman. Otherwise, teach and repeatedly demonstrate to your classmates or dormmates that when they cough or sneeze (the two main ways the virus enters the air) to either:

  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue, discard that tissue, and immediately wash the hands
  • Cough or sneeze into the elbow or sleeve if a clean tissue is not readily available

But whatever you do, never cough or sneeze into the open air—this is how viruses are most rapidly transmitted to others.

Flu Shot:

Without hesitation, my family and I receive the flu shot every single year. In fact, we’re often one of the first to do so. Despite the myths, the flu shot is a safe and powerful weapon against the spread of influenza virus, which kills up to 50,000 people a year in the United States alone. I have seen healthy patients die from the flu in my practice, and it is always a devastating tragedy. If you don’t get it to protect yourself, then get it to protect all those who come into contact with you—think of your elderly grandparents, sick parent with diabetes, or your infant sibling.

Rest:

Arguably the most vital rule, rest is vital to allow the body to recover more quickly. And if you are sick, please do whatever necessary to prevent others from getting sick, too.  That includes staying home from school.

So if you’re headed for the college dormitories, set up a dorm room meeting. If you have a school-aged child, why not construct their next book report on this very topic? Do what you can to get as many people on board with these quick and dirty prevention tips. That way, everyone will be on the same page and best protected.

Learn more health tips on Sanaz’s weekly medical podcast at on iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud, and Stitcher. Or join her Facebook or Twitter pages.

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. It does not substitute any medical advice or replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal doctor. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues

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