Contagious diseases in your child's backpack

By Lola Augustine Brown on August 06, 2008
Children (affectionately referred to as ‘germ magnets’ by my doctor) pick up whatever is circulating at their school or daycare and unwittingly transport it home to the rest of the family. “Not washing hands, not covering mouths when coughing or sneezing and sharing articles such as hats, combs, clothes, food, drinking and eating utensils result in the spread of infection,” says Dr. Gerry Predy, Vice President of Public Health, for Capital Health in Edmonton, Alberta.

Many of the things children bring home just have a high ‘yuk’ factor – such as lice– and are fairly easy to treat. However, there are some highly contagious childhood diseases that can be horrible for adults to endure. Here’s a rundown of some of the most common ailments.

Head lice

If lice have laid siege to your child’s classroom, it can be frustrating. And just when you think you’re rid of them, they reappear. This is because they are easily transmittable from person to person and because they have become somewhat resistant to treatments, says Predy. Plus, it only takes one parent allowing an untreated child to return to school to start another infestation. With a bad infestation, you can actually see the lice jumping around, as they are about the size of a sesame seed. The eggs, which look like dandruff, but are glued to the hair, are known as ‘nits’ and their presence is usually how a lice infestation is discovered. Treatment comes in the form of over-the-counter shampoos and solutions and rigorous combing out of eggs with special nit combs. Other home remedies, including putting vegetable oil on the child’s hair and using tea tree oil, have proven to be successful for some.

Unfortunately, it is advisable to treat the whole family as, horror of horrors, if your child is infested, there’s a good chance that you will be too!

Fifth disease

When Daina Feick, of Kitchener, Ontario, attended her son’s kindergarten graduation, she assumed his face was bright red because he was nervous and excited. It wasn’t. Fifth disease was doing the rounds at school and although it’s a fairly harmless ailment in kids, it isn’t much fun for adults. Fifth disease is a respiratory infection caused by the parvovirus B19.

“I had horrible, almost instant swelling of my legs, a rash on my torso and for about three days I could not lift my right arm,” says Feick. Her doctor did a blood test, and then Feick could relate her son’s red cheeks to her own illness. There is no medication or vaccine available; you just need to ride it out.

Scabies

Joan LeBlanc, from Port Elgin, Ontario, took her teenaged son to a dermatologist about his acne and happened to enquire as to what the red blotches were on her daughter’s feet. The doctor told her it was scabies. Scabies is characterized by itchy red bumps that are the result of tiny mites burrowing deep into the skin. The mites spread easily from person to person and can live in clothes and bedding for four days.

“I could have died right there because I was so embarrassed, but he never batted an eye,” says LeBlanc.

Once she realized how common scabies was, and how easy it was to treat them, the embarrassment faded along with the red blotches. Treatment comes in the form of a lotion prescribed by your family doctor, but to really get rid of the bugs you need to wash everything that your child has come in contact with (or seal everything in a plastic bag for four days).

Chickenpox

This common childhood infection tends to hit adults a lot harder than it does children though the symptoms are the same – an itchy rash that turns into fluid-filled blisters, a cough and a fever.

Most adults, luckily, are immune. Having the disease during childhood most often provides lifelong immunity. Despite popular belief, you cannot catch shingles from a child with chickenpox (even though both diseases are caused by the same virus and you can catch chickenpox from someone with shingles).

There is a chickenpox vaccine available that the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends for all children at 12 months of age. Treatment of chickenpox is limited to acetaminophen for the fever, drinking plenty of liquids and using anti-itch lotions available from any pharmacy.

Pinkeye

Joan LeBlanc had the bad luck to have a runin with pinkeye, or connjunctivitis. It is an infection of the membrane covering the eyeball and is most often caused by a virus. It makes the eye itchy and pussy, may make the eye hard to open after sleeping. (Employ the use of a warm, damp washcloth and do not use the same cloth for both eyes.) “My older daughter Marcie caught it when she was in Grade 4 and it was an absolute mess to get rid of,” says LeBlanc. “The infection and subsequent pink circle went from her eye almost down to her lip.”

Pinkeye spreads very easily and will require antibiotic eye drops. Visit your doctor to be sure that the pinkeye is viral, as it also may be caused by bacteria or sensitivity to some chemicals. Doctors can prescribe the right antibiotic to clear the grossness up quickly.

5 steps to beating bugs

Dr. Predy's tips to help your kids dodge the daycare germ-a-round:
  1. Teach handwashing before eating, after using the toilet and after coughing, sneezing or wiping nose.
  2. Encourage respiratory etiquette to cover coughs and sneezes and use tissue to wipe the nose. If children don’t have a tissue handy, coughing or sneezing into their arm keeps hands from getting germ infested.
  3. Do not send kids to school or daycare if they are not well.
  4. Be sure kids get plenty of rest and have a proper diet with lots of fruits and vegetables.
  5. Keep vaccinations up to date.

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