Beat the schoolday sniffles

CHILDREN may not be happy their summer holidays are drawing to a close, but lessons and homework aren't the only things they have to fear. The start of a new term can bring all kinds of health problems for pupils.

CHILDREN may not be happy their summer holidays are drawing to a close, but lessons and homework aren't the only things they have to fear. The start of a new term can bring all kinds of health problems for pupils. LISA HAYNES reports on how to avoid them.

THE onset of autumn combined with kids crammed in warm classrooms creates a breeding ground for bugs. As well as tales of their six weeks of holiday adventures, pupils could be exchanging coughs, colds and other ailments in the playground.

Though children can't avoid school, they can avoid some classroom illnesses. And if they do succumb to the latest bug doing the rounds, parents need to act fast.

"Children have been with their families and then come into close proximity with other children on arrival back at school. This provides a perfect environment for the bugs, which then pass from child to child," warned Dr Monica Lakhanpaul, senior lecturer in child health at the University of Leicester.

Making sure that your child is fully fit and that their immunisations are up-to-date will give your child a fighting chance of avoiding bugs like flu, coughs and colds.

"It is important to think about how to maintain your child in good health at all times, which will help with their immunity," Dr Lakhanpaul said.

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"Ensuring that your child has sufficient milk, five portions of fruit or veg a day as recommended by the government, and an adequate amount of exercise will put the child in a favourable position to fight infections."

But although your child may be top of the class in the fitness stakes, some illnesses can't be avoided.

"Children need to attend school and therefore will come into contact with illnesses," Dr Lakhanpaul said. "In some situations the infection has already been passed between the children before the symptoms become apparent, therefore even by asking children with symptoms to remain away from school with not fully eliminate the problem."

The head louse is an itchy, annoying nuisance for any household if a child comes home scratching their head in despair.

"Children pick up head lice by close contact which is unavoidable in school. Be vigilant and keep checking the child's head for evidence of lice or eggs," Dr Lakhanpaul said.

If lice or eggs are found, parents need to take fast action to avoid a mini-epidemic in the classroom. Inform your child's school immediately so that they can recommend that all parents check their child's heads. A number of different methods have been tried to eradicate head lice. Solutions can be bought from the pharmacist but head lice are becoming increasingly resistant to the different insecticides, so nit combs should also be used to comb out the lice and eggs (a variety are available on the market).

Hand examination of the child's hair, picking out any eggs or lice is also a useful method.

Washing the child's hair, followed by combing of the hair with conditioner in it so that the lice slip off the hair is another method used. Following all of these, it is necessary to continue to recheck the hair on a regular basis.

Most children suffer from chickenpox at some stage during their school years. It is very infectious and a child with chickenpox is likely to pass it on to most classmates and household members who have not already had it, according to Patient UK.

A child with chickenpox is infectious from two to four days before the rash first appears until all the spots have crusted over - commonly about five to six after onset of the illness.

Sharon White, professional officer at the School And Public Health Nurses Association, said: "A child who has chickenpox should be kept away from school for as long as the illness lasts - usually about two weeks."

There are bugs that are difficult for a parent to detect without confirmation from a GP - but itching is a common sign that your child may have picked something up.

If you suspect your child has picked up ringworm, Dr Lakhanpaul advises taking them to see a GP who will check whether this is the case. The doctor will then treat the child with anti-fungal medication.

If your child is suffering from intense itching on their body, especially at night they may be suffering from scabies. Unfortunately scabies spreads rapidly under crowded conditions where there is frequent skin-to-skin contact, such as schools.

Dr Lakhanpaul said: "If you think a child may have scabies the child should go to their general practitioner who will first verify whether the child does have scabies or not and then prescribe the appropriate treatment. All members of the household will need to be checked."

The majority of school illnesses like tummy bugs and coughs and cold are caused by poor personal hygiene. Teaching your child a few simple routines can help stop the bugs spreading like wildfire in the classroom:

Encourage your child to wash their hands regularly with soap and warm water after they go to the toilet and before meal times. Drying hands is also important - ensure your child doesn't share hand towels with other pupils.

If your child is fighting off a cold, give them plenty of tissues and make sure they dispose of used ones as quickly as possible.

A healthy lunch box can make all the difference in keeping bugs at bay and boosting your child's immunity.

Dr Lakhanpaul said: "Try to reduce the amount of crisps and biscuits children take to school - substitute them with healthy options such as fruit or yoghurts or yoghurt drinks. It is very important to keep the child interested and provide a variety of options. These may include strips of carrots and hummus, cheese cubes or small boxes of raisins.

"Try and use brown bread instead of white and pasta salads make an interesting change. Replace highly sugary drinks with either ones that are sugar free or preferably with water. Fizzy drinks are bad for children's' teeth and also fill them up, reducing the space in their stomach for eating their healthy food."

Almost half of children in the UK take a packed lunch - 5.5 billion a year - and making it nutritious and delicious isn't difficult, according to mother-of-three Annabel Karmel, author of Lunchboxes.

"Most importantly your child will enjoy the meal and if it's nutritious it will help improve its attention, behaviour and learning in the afternoon." She suggests making your child the envy of the class with Stuffed Pitta Pockets With Tuna, Egg And Sweetcorn.

STUFFED PITTA POCKET WITH TUNA, EGG AND SWEETCORN (Makes four)

2 eggs

200g can tuna in oil, drained

100g (4oz) sweetcorn

2tbsp mayonnaise

1tsp white wine vinegar

4 spring onions, chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

a few drops Tabasco sauce

salad cress (optional)

2 pitta breads

Put the eggs in a saucepan of cold water and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 7-8 minutes (the yolk should be solid). Drain and cool under cold water. Peel the eggs when cold.

Meanwhile, flake the tuna with a fork and mix with the sweetcorn, mayonnaise, white wine vinegar, spring onions, salt and pepper and the Tabasco sauce. Roughly chop the hard-boiled eggs and add to the tuna mix with the salad cress (if using), stirring well.

Cut the pitta breads in half to give four pitta pockets and divide the mixture between them.

According to a recent Mintel survey, just over 25 per cent of lunchboxes contained no fruit or vegetables.

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