Classrooms, whether they’re at the Dragon School or the village primary, are a breeding ground for bugs and viruses. As the new school year approaches, Jaine Blackman outlines the common playground illnesses


An education isn’t the only thing kids will be gaining when they start the new school term – the far less desirable result of mixing with other children in the classroom is picking up plenty of childhood bugs.

Fortunately, most aren’t serious. Nevertheless, they can lead to kids missing school and parents worrying.

“Parents should always let school know if a child is unwell,” says Anne Lankester, school health nurse for Headington and Wheatley.

“This can affect school attendance which then has an impact to a lesser or greater extent on their education. And always consult a health professional if concerned about your child’s health.”

On average, children catch between nine and 12 viruses a year, many during winter, and parents may feel their offspring are constantly unwell.

Reminding them to wash their hands is important but, aside from keeping them in quarantine, avoiding all bugs is practically impossible.

But there are some things which can be done. Dr Donald Macgregor, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, stresses that nutrition plays a big part, with good levels of vitamin A and E important for protecting the gut and airways.

“Poor nutrition affects the immune system, and children who are better nourished bounce through illnesses much better than children who aren't," he says.

Kids are most likely to catch bugs when they start nursery, but the good news is that as they build up immunity over time, they'll generally become less susceptible.

If your child has underlying health problems or a weak immune system, common ailments can be more troublesome, and what for one might be a case of feeling peaky for a few days, could be a more serious matter for another.

Megan Abbott, school health nurse for Iffley and Cowley, agrees. “Healthy Eating is a must,” she says. “Five a day of fruit and veg, with water, plus regular exercise. There is a direct correlation between healthy lunch boxes and keeping fit, that keeps us physically and mentally well."

COUGH & COLD: The rhinovirus (coughs and colds) is the most common type of virus and can be more severe in younger children, as their airways are narrower and their tonsils and adenoids bigger.

As they're spread by droplets - coughs, sneezes and on hands - they're far more common in winter when children are huddled together inside, doors shut.

“These are normal childhood minor illnesses,” say Anne and Megan. “We recommend regular hand washing and catch it, bin it, kill it - using tissues and disposing of them in a bin.

“Use paracetamol if child has a raised temperature. If this continues the child may need to visit the GP or phone the out of hours service if appropriate. Keep the child comfortable and do not overheat.”

Of the nine to 12 viruses children suffer from each year, eight to 10 may occur in four or five months over winter, according to Dr Macgregor.

"To some parents, particularly those who've moved to a new area [and germ pool], it feels like their child has a cold or virus all the time," he says. "They're probably right to some extent, as while the virus itself only lasts two or three days, the effects like stuffiness and a cough can last a lot longer. But when a parent thinks a child has had a virus for three or four months, the truth is they've probably had four or five viruses."

He adds that the following year, the child won't get quite as ill as they've met the viruses before, their airways are bigger and their tonsils and adenoids will have shrunk a little.

SICKNESS & DIARRHOEA: Gastroenteritis - inflammation of the stomach and bowel - is often caused by norovirus and rotavirus when it comes to kids. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhoea, usually lasting three to five days, and it can be reduced by encouraging children to wash their hands, says Dr Macgregor, as such bugs are spread through contact.

"We know that the more you wash your hands, the less they spread. But it's the children that need to wash their hands, and you've got to be realistic," he adds. "Children are going to play - what are the chances of a six-year-old boy coming in from playing football and washing his hands? There's a limit to what you can do to prevent illness."

While they are poorly, keep children off school and encourage fluid intake.

CHICKENPOX: The dreaded chickenpox - highly contagious and unmistakable with its itchy rash, starting as small red spots which develop into fluid-filled blisters and eventually scabs. There may be mild flu-like symptoms beforehand too.

It's most common in children under 10, and the severity of the rash can range from just a few spots to covering most of the body. While unsightly and extremely itchy, for most kids it isn't serious, and lots of parents hope to get it out of the way sooner rather than later.

"In pre-school children, chickenpox is a good illness to get because you're immune to it afterwards and it doesn't cause a lot of trouble," says Dr Macgregor.

"If you've got a generally healthy child, chickenpox is a bother and can be disruptive. It's not usually a terrible illness but it can cause a lot of problems for children and adults who have immune problems."

Anne and Megan say: “It’s a normal viral illness, contagious until spots appear, however no school attendance until the spots are scabbed over.”

MUMPS, MEASLES & RUBELLA: These three highly infectious conditions are usually mild, but can have serious, potentially fatal, complications, including meningitis, swelling of the brain (encephalitis) and deafness.

They can also lead to pregnancy complications, and mumps - characterised by painful swelling at the sides of the face - can spread to the testes in post-pubescent males, which can lead to infertility.

Since the MMR vaccine was introduced in 1988, it's rare for children in the UK to catch the illnesses, although there have been measles outbreaks in recent years. Dr Macgregor urges any parents whose children haven't had the MMR jab to get them vaccinated immediately. Although there was a catch-up programme after the MMR vaccination scare in the late Nineties, some children missed out on having the jab.

SLAPPED CHEEK SYNDROME: This parvovirus infection can cause mild flu-like symptoms, followed several days later by a bright red rash on both cheeks, which may spread to other parts of the body and cause discomfort and itching.

It can cause problems in pregnancy, but often goes unrecognised in children as it can be very mild and usually doesn't require treatment unless accompanied by a high temperature or symptoms worsen.

SCARLET FEVER: The bacterial illness, which has reappeared in recent years, can be spread through coughs and sneezes and causes a sore throat, fever and a widespread, fine pink-red rash. It mainly affects children aged two to eight years.

"In years gone by, scarlet fever used to cause dread," says Macgregor. "It's come back but it's probably not as virulent as it was, and there are better treatments."

When the fever and rash subside after four or five days, there can be peeling of the skin round the fingers which alarms parents, although this is often after the acute stage of the illness has passed.

HEAD LICE: Head lice are extremely common, particularly when children are younger and huddle together more, making it easy for lice to jump from head to head. The tiny blood-sucking insects, whose eggs are known as nits, can make the scalp inflamed and itchy.

“We recommend parents check children’s hair on a regular basis,” said Megan. “Bugs like clean hair! Tie up long hair so bugs find it harder to jump across little heads. This is a very common problem particularly in primary schools.”

Ian Burgess, director of the Medical Entomology Centre, says: "Head lice were once regarded as a problem that other families had, but they're now so common among young children that an infestation can occur at any time, no matter how careful parents are to keep them clear." He suggests parents use a good louse comb at least twice a week to comb through hair root to tip.

If lice are found, use an approved treatment from a pharmacy and always follow the instructions, as a second treatment is vital. He says all members of the family should be checked and treated if necessary.

"The louse has been the bane of mankind throughout history and shows no sign of giving up its place in the league table of annoying pests," says Burgess. "Following these rules might just mean your child remains free of the problem this academic year."


Sending your child back to school for the upcoming new term could cost more than you expect, but Gill Oliver says some simple sums will help save you money Just when you’ve finished paying for all the kids’ summer holiday trips and treats comes a new financial headache – the cost of sending them back to school.

At a time when we’re all still feeling the pinch of high inflation, a new report from John Lewis has found that the cost of today’s school uniform, school bag and its contents have doubled in real terms since the 1980s. The study into the most popular items that children carry around said that parents will be looking at forking out the grand sum of £550.80 to send their child back to school. This includes around £100 on a school uniform, £7.60 on lunch, drinks and snacks, £19.70 on a new school bag and £46.10 on text books and stationery.

The big increase comes from the fact that the days when a calculator and a shatter-proof ruler were the snazziest pieces of kit for a schoolbag are long gone.

Almost half (45 per cent) of children were found to take a smartphone with them to school, and over one third (35 per cent) carried headphones. The 2013 school bag results show that almost one fifth (18 per cent) of secondary school age children are taking an MP3 player with them to school, one in 20 (five per cent) are opting for a tablet or laptop and one in 50 (two per cent) are carrying an eReader.

One glimmer of hope for hard-pressed parents is that the real costs of good old-fashioned staples like lunchboxes and uniforms were found to have edged down in recent decades.

So how can you get the best value when sending your child back to school?

Paying online for school trips and meals might be something to consider. Many schools now allow parents to pay in this way, meaning parents no longer have to send their children to school with cash.

Some parents put off shopping for a school uniform until the last minute to avoid the problem of summer holiday growth spurts.

But buying early will give you more time to shop around for the best deal and you can always take the advice from a store’s schoolwear department on going up a size.

Deborah Heston, deals expert at consumer help website, says that while many stores are battling it out to offer cheap school uniforms, parents should look beyond just the price tag and consider how long they will need the clothes to last for. She says: “If you want to hand down uniforms to younger kids then consider investing in items you know will last longer, that may cost a little bit more, but have a better cost per wear.

“If your kids are the type to rip clothes or get them mucky beyond repair, then buy cheaper and replace as you go throughout the year.”

Name labels will help ensure the new clothing you’ve bought does not go astray on the bus or playing field, leaving you shelling out for replacements.

As more youngsters are carrying high-tech goods around with them, you might also want to think about buying some tags which can be used on gadgets. Also check that your insurance policy covers potential damage or the loss of these items while they are at school.

Before investing in an expensive gadget, it is also important to double check with the school what their policy is about such devices. Some schools operate a no-mobile policy in the classroom.

Children often crave the latest technology craze, but it is important to work out which will be the most useful as a study aid and which is better suited to home leisure time.



A trouble-free start to the new school year is possible if parents take practical, and emotional, steps to prepare their children. Jaine Blackman reports


Shiny new shoes, pencil cases and rucksacks all lined up in shop displays are proof positive that it’s time to get ready for the new school year.

But while parents can hardly miss what they need for the start of the new term in a practical sense, some may forget the more emotional and functional preparations.

These preparations of course vary depending on the age of the child, but generally the younger the pupil, the more important they are. Reception teacher Alison Sherratt, in-coming president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), says many parents, particularly those with reception-age children, are anxious about their children going to school. But she says one of the best ways to help young children starting school is to make sure they can manage their clothes.

“Can they put their coats on by themselves, are they sufficiently toilet trained?” she asks.

“And are they socialised and able to cope with being with lots of other children?”

She suggests that parents take young children to places where there are lots of other children before they start school, so they get used to sharing.

“Many children can get quite upset when they’re asked to share things, and there’s a lot of sharing and socialising needs to go on in a class of 30 children,” she points out.

Another idea is to talk about the school and teacher to youngsters. They may have met their new teacher at the end of last term, but Sherratt says it’s worth talking about them as the new term approaches, and also discussing school and what a good time they’ll have there.

Sherratt says a nice tip she got from one parent was to get a child to help put labels into new school clothes, and perhaps mark the labels with a sign that’s recognisable to the child, such as a red triangle, so they feel involved in the ‘getting ready’ process.

She also highlights how important it is to take your child out and about before school starts.

“One of the things we try and encourage at our school is to get parents to take children out somewhere and just experience things. They can share those experiences with the other children at school.”

Words speak as loud as actions too, and Sherratt points out that simply chatting a lot to children is a great preparation for the new term. “The sad truth is that mums and dads are so busy and often working, and finding time to just sit and chat with their children can be tough. But just talking about themselves when they were at school, and the things they did, can be good for children.”

Talking about lunchtimes is also a good idea for younger children. Help them to balance and carry things so they’re ready for carrying their meal tray, ask them to help prepare packed lunches (if that’s what they’ll have at school) and make sure they can do things like open yoghurt pots on their own.

“When they’ve just started school and they’re really tired by lunchtime, the packed lunches and school dinners can be a really frightening thing for them,” says Sherratt.

Parents also need to be aware of bedtimes, and getting young children to bed early in the weeks before school starts to prepare them for early mornings and tiring days.

But whatever the back-to-school shock for kids, the new term is often a relief for parents, insists Justine Roberts, founder of the parents’ social networking site Mumsnet.

“For most parents back to school time can’t come soon enough – after weeks of trying to keep boredom at bay, school becomes a welcome relief.”