6 contagious illnesses for parents to watch out for this school year

Children's Health

by Dominic Lucia, MD

Sep 7, 2021

Once school gets started, all viral illnesses are in play. Think about it—all those kids touching and playing as kids do, putting their hands all over surfaces in classrooms, sharing toys. Plus, kids aren’t the best at washing their hands and covering their coughs. This makes schools and daycares hotbeds for a lot of contagious viruses.

Let’s talk about a few viruses in particular that we see most heavily as we go into the school year and winter season. If you think your child is showing symptoms of any of these illnesses, talk to your pediatrician.

1. Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV)

RSV is one of the many viruses that can cause respiratory illness―illnesses of the nose, throat and lungs. This virus typically occurs in the late fall through early spring months but has made an early start this year.

RSV shows up like a common cold with these symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Fever  
  • Cough
  • Short periods without breathing (apnea)
  • Trouble eating, drinking or swallowing
  • Wheezing
  • Flaring of the nostrils or straining of the chest or stomach while breathing
  • Breathing faster than usual or trouble breathing
  • Turning blue around the lips and fingertips 

These symptoms typically last a week or two. However, RSV can cause difficulty breathing and lead to serious illness, especially for babies and older adults.

2. Influenza (flu)

We’re all familiar with this one—the dreaded flu. The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs.

Flu symptoms usually come on suddenly and can include:

  • Fever or feeling feverish/chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue (tiredness)
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (more common in children)

Fortunately, the flu vaccine is highly effective. Remember to get your whole family vaccinated against the flu this fall.

3. Rhinovirus and adenovirus (common cold)

Adenoviruses and rhinoviruses are viruses that cause the common cold. While symptoms are usually mild, these viruses can lead to upper respiratory infections. These colds are most common during the fall and spring.

4. Parainfluenza (croup)

Parainfluenza viruses commonly cause respiratory illnesses in young babies and children. Symptoms typically include fever, runny nose and cough but these viruses can lead to more severe illness such as croup or pneumonia.

5. Coxacki (Hand, foot and mouth disease)

This virus causes hand foot and mouth disease and is traditionally seen the most during school season. Hand, foot and mouth disease is especially common in children under 5 years old.

Although very contagious, the illness is usually not serious and most children have mild symptoms for 5-10 days. Symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease usually include:

  • Fever
  • Mouth sores
  • Skin rash commonly found on the hands, mouth and/or feet

6. COVID-19 (coronavirus)

COVID-19 can cause a wide range of symptoms, including:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Trouble breathing
  • Symptoms of a cold such as a sore throat, congestion, or a runny nose
  • Chills
  • Muscle pain
  • Headache
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Tiredness

COVID-19 illness is usually mild in children but can lead to serious complications like MIS-C. For more information on ways to keep your child safe from COVID-19 this school year, read this article.

So, what can parents do?

We have all learned a lot in the COVID-19 pandemic and taught our kids how to do a lot of the goods things—washing hands, wearing a mask, distancing when you can, covering your sneezes and coughs with the inside of your arm. Continue encouraging (and modeling) these healthy habits.

And when it comes to the flu and COVID-19, the easiest way to protect your children is by getting them vaccinated.

If you think your child might be showing symptoms of one of these illnesses, talk to your child’s doctor for guidance.

Subscribe to the Scrubbing In newsletter for more ways to keep your family well.

About the Author

Dominic Lucia, MD, is a pediatric emergency medicine physician on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children’s Medical Center, where he serves as Chief Medical Officer and Medical Director of the Emergency Department.

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