By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

Here’s the lowdown on the most common illnesses school kids get and some advice on what parents can do to prevent and treat these ailments.


School-aged youths have six to eight colds per year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Caused by viruses, not by damp weather, colds spread through the air (via cough and sneeze droplets) and by direct contact (touching people and contaminated objects, such as doorknobs, toys and telephone receivers).

From an infection-control standpoint, there isn’t much reason to keep your child out of school.

Youngsters are contagious a day or two before the onset of symptoms, so by the time your child has a runny nose, other children probably have been exposed.

The critical thing is how the child feels. Kids who feel miserable can’t concentrate or learn. Use your best judgment.

Antibiotics won’t help a cold, but they can be useful if sinusitis or another secondary infection develops. Check with your doctor if symptoms persist for more than 10 days.

To cure the common cold, we recommend getting lots of rest, fluids and a little chicken soup, too. If you must get help from the pharmacy shelf, stick to one-drug, one-symptom remedies.

Try a decongestant to unclog nasal stuffiness. Acetaminophen reduces fever and achiness but don’t give your kids aspirin. It’s linked to a deadly illness called Reye’s syndrome.


A viral infection, influenza (flu) has symptoms similar to the common cold, but usually they are more severe and potentially more dangerous.

The flu can lead to pneumonia, the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States — though rarely in children.

Unlike the cold, which comes on slowly, the flu typically arrives like a freight train. In a few hours, your child can be down with a high fever, chills, weak muscles and overall achiness.

Treat flu symptoms like a cold’s. Flu vaccines, which are safe and have few side effects, offer immunity for a year. However, they are tailored for particular strains and sometimes different flu varieties circulate.

Many health experts recommend that all children receive flu vaccines annually.

Strep throat

Most sore throats are part of a cold and clear up without complications, but one variety is a troublemaker.

About 10 percent of sore throats are caused by streptococcus bacteria. If left untreated, some strains can damage the heart. Symptoms include high fever, swollen neck glands and pus on the tonsils. But symptoms can be milder.

Only throat cultures at your doctor’s office can diagnosis strep throat for sure. Confirmed cases of strep are treated with antibiotics.

A child can return to school after 24 hours of treatment if they are feeling better. To avoid rebound infection, have your child take the medicine for a full 10 days.

There’s little you can do to counter the spread of strep infections. Instead, watch for symptoms and get treatment immediately to avoid dangerous complications.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital, and Keith Bly is an associate professor of pediatrics and director of the UTMB Pediatric Urgent Care Clinics. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.