Common Illnesses and Injuries in Schools

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Common Illnesses and Injuries in Schools

Back-to-school time often means that kids bring home germs and illnesses. It’s just a fact of life. Schools are breeding grounds for infections. Germs easily go from person to person because kids are in such close proximity to each other. They are also sharing classroom equipment and supplies, which helps pass along germs. On top of that, physical activity in the gymnasium and the playground can result in accidental injury.

In fact, 40% of school-aged children miss three or more school days a year due to illness or injury. With time, your child will develop immunity to many infectious diseases. But in the meantime, you need to help minimize the effect on your family.

Hand washing is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of germs. If everyone practices proper hand washing, the whole school community stays healthier. Another key is keeping sick kids at home. They can return to school when they’re fever-free for 24 hours without medicine and they’re eating and drinking normally.

Here are some of the most common illnesses and injuries that happen at school. Learn what you can do to help your child and your family stay healthy this school year.

Cold and Flu

Cold viruses are the most common and most contagious school illness. Across the nation, kids miss nearly 22 million school days each year due to colds. Kids tend to get more colds than adults and their symptoms tend to be more severe. If your child doesn’t have a fever, it’s probably fine to go to school. But you need to teach your child how to avoid spreading germs. Make sure your child knows to cough and sneeze into a tissue or elbow if no tissue is available. And wash hands afterward.

The influenza virus is another respiratory virus that can wreck havoc during the school year. The flu is more intense than colds. Your child will have a high fever—101 degrees or higher—and will be unusually tired and have a dry cough. The flu also tends to keep kids out of school longer than a cold. The flu causes kids to miss 38 million school days each year. 

With both colds and flu, prevention is key. Teach your child to keep his or her fingers and hands away from the mouth, nose and eyes. And wash hands frequently with warm, soapy water. It’s also important to get the flu vaccine each year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone six months of age and older gets vaccinated. Getting vaccinated helps protect your child. It also helps prevent spreading the flu virus to kids at high risk of flu complications.

Stomach Flu

Stomach flu really isn’t the flu. The influenza virus causes the flu. Gastroenteritis is the real name for what people call the stomach flu. And a wide variety of viruses cause gastroenteritis, including rotaviruses, noroviruses, and certain adenoviruses. These viruses infect the lining of the digestive tract, causing stomach pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. The biggest worry with gastroenteritis is dehydration. You don’t need to restrict food, but make sure your child drinks plenty of fluids.

Gastroenteritis spreads from close contact with someone who already has it. It can also spread through contaminated food and beverages. To avoid it, your child should always wash their hands after using the bathroom and before eating. You should also teach your child to avoid sharing drinks, eating utensils, and toothbrushes. And always eat food off of clean surfaces.

Head Lice

Head lice are tiny parasitic insects that live on the scalp. They feed on blood and cause intense itching. They don’t spread disease, but they can cause a secondary infection when kids scratch their scalp. The most common way to get head lice is from head-to-head contact with someone who has them. Head lice can also spread via personal items, such as hats, brushes, hair accessories, and bed linens.

Head lice infestations are most common in kids three to 11 years old and their caregivers. Kids of this age frequently play in ways that lead to close contact. They may also be sharing personal items and storage spaces at school. If your child gets head lice, it doesn’t mean your family is dirty. It simply means that your child came in contact with someone else who had head lice.

The United States sees up to 12 million infestations each year. To prevent your family from adding to this statistic, teach your child how to prevent an infestation. Avoid head-to-head contact and don’t share hats, helmets, hair accessories, towels, or any other personal items. Make sure the school has enough personal storage to allow students their own personal cubby, hook or locker.


Pinkeye—or conjunctivitis—is a highly contagious eye infection. It easily spreads from one kid to the next in a school setting. Signs that your child has pinkeye include a blood-shot eye or eyes, yellow or green eye discharge, and waking up with one eye or both eyes sealed shut with discharge. Your child may also complain of itchy, burning eyes and feeling like something is in the eyes. Pinkeye usually requires antibiotic eye drops or ointment to speed recovery and prevent its spread to others.

Strategies to prevent pinkeye are similar to preventing any contagious disease. Make sure your child knows proper hand washing technique and does it frequently. Also, teach your child to avoid touching his or her eyes.

Strep Throat

Viruses cause most sore throats in kids. But strep throat is a sore throat due to the bacteria group A Streptococcus (GAS). Viral sore throats usually have other respiratory symptoms, such as runny nose. Strep throat typically has no other symptoms besides a sore throat, high fever, and headache. Strep throat is very contagious and spreads easily in classrooms, causing several million infections each year.  

Left untreated, strep throat can cause complications, including rheumatic fever. So it’s important to get a throat culture and treat a positive strep test with antibiotics. You can also help prevent strep throat by teaching your child to avoid contact with anyone who has a sore throat and to wash their hands frequently. Your child should also know not to share drinks, eating utensils, or toothbrushes. 


Impetigo is a skin infection from the bacteria group A Streptococcus (GAS). GAS also causes strep throat and, like strep throat, impetigo is highly contagious. Impetigo is one of the most common skin infections in children. In the United States, there are several million cases of impetigo each year. It causes sores or blisters on the face, neck and hands, usually on skin that is already irritated.

Good hygiene is the key to preventing impetigo. This includes cleaning cuts, abrasions, and other skin irritations. And teach your child not to scratch rashes and insect bites. Good hand washing practices also help prevent the spread of GAS, which will help prevent both impetigo and strep throat. 

Backpack-Related Injuries

Injuries are another back-to-school consideration, and backpack injuries affect thousands of children each year. Backpacks are convenient for transporting textbooks, supplies and lunches to and from school. But overloaded backpacks or wearing backpacks improperly can cause back, neck and shoulder pain. It can also lead to poor posture and cause numbness, tingling and weakness in the arms and hands.

A backpack should not weigh more than 10% of a child’s body weight. You can use your bathroom scale to double check. Weigh your child without the backpack, then put the backpack on and weigh again. Also, make sure your child always wears both shoulder straps to distribute the weight evenly. Find a lightweight backpack with wide straps and a padded back. If you want your child to use a wheeled backpack, check with your school first.

Playground Injuries

Playground injuries send approximately 200,000 children age 14 and younger to the emergency room each year. Common injuries include fractures, cuts, bruises, sprains, dislocations and concussions. Most injuries occur on bars or climbers compared to other types of playground equipment. Teach your child to follow playground rules, and ask your school about playground supervision.

Key Takeaways

Heading back to school can lead to a variety of common illnesses and injuries for many children. Fortunately, you can take steps to prevent many of them. Proper hand washing techniques, frequent hand washing, and respiratory etiquette will help prevent the spread of germs. If your child gets sick, keep your child home until he or she is fever-free for 24 hours and can eat and drink normally. And know that children develop more immunity to common illnesses as they age.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Apr 26
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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