Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Avoid the 'back-to-school plague'

By Jen Christensen, CNN
August 13, 2014 -- Updated 1441 GMT (2241 HKT)
As millions of children head back to school this month, teachers and parents are dreading the "Back-to-School Plague." Schools are full of hot zones for germs, Dr. Harly Rotbart says. Here are his top eight. As millions of children head back to school this month, teachers and parents are dreading the "Back-to-School Plague." Schools are full of hot zones for germs, Dr. Harly Rotbart says. Here are his top eight.
HIDE CAPTION
Top 8 germiest places in school
Bathroom doors
Cafeteria trays
Unrefrigerated lunches
Desks
Art supplies
Sports equipment
Playground equipment
Drinking fountains
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • CDC: Elementary kids get eight to 12 colds or cases of the flu every school year
  • The "germiest" place may be the drinking fountain, expert say
  • Hand-washing, sleep, regular exercise and a healthy diet are key to preventing illness

Editor's note: This story is a CNN Health favorite. It was originally published in August 2013.

(CNN) -- As a first-grade teacher, Julie Miller is exposed to a horrifying number of germs on a daily basis.

"I've been thrown up on; they sneeze and cough on me. And lost teeth are a real big thing for first-graders," said Miller, who teaches at Spring Hills Elementary in the suburbs of Chicago.

Elementary ways to keep germs away
How to avoid catching the flu
What's dirtier ... your tablet or toilet?

"They're so cute and unaware, though. They'll have boogers hanging out of their nose and will be talking to you and not think anything of it. Some teachers flip out, but I tell my students, 'Go get a Kleenex and wash your hands.' When they sneeze, I teach them to do it into their elbows. They learn eventually."

On average, elementary school children get eight to 12 colds or cases of the flu each school year, according to the CDC. For the older kids, it is about half that. Teachers and parents commonly refer to it as the Back-to-School Plague.

But there are simple ways to keep your kids healthy.

Miller, who is getting her son Justin ready to go to kindergarten, isn't worried.

"I've taught my kids healthy habits; I'm sure they'll be fine," Miller said. She makes sure they get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly and eat healthy food. She's taught her children to wash their hands often, and she's hooked antibacterial gels on their backpacks for when they can't.

"I'm not a germaphobe like some of my colleagues who have put antibacterial lotion all over the place: their cars, their classrooms," Miller said. "I do feel like some germs are OK."

Danger zones

Germ candy stores: that's what Dr. Harley Rotbart, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado and author of the book "Germ Proof Your Kids," calls schools.

"It is stunning how many times kids touch their faces and then touch other kids," Rotbart said. "This is a very touchy-feely demographic, and that's how we share germs. ... And the little ones don't have the same exposure to germs that we do, so until their immune systems get built up, they get sick."

Schools are full of "hot zones" for germs, Rotbart says. "Most people think that's the bathroom, but it really isn't. Those get regularly cleaned."

If he had to rank the germiest places in school, No. 1 would be the drinking fountain. It's germier than the toilet seat, he says, but "doesn't get disinfected as much." Plus, it's the perfect spot for kids to ingest these microorganisms as they put their mouths on the stream of water -- or right on the fountain itself.

Rotbart suggests teaching students to run the water a little first and then drink. Or better yet, children should bring their own water bottles to school and not share them with anyone.

Cafeteria trays are another germ hot zone. "Those don't get wiped down nearly as well," he said, recommending that kids bring the tray to their table and then use hand sanitizer before they pick up their food.

"There is a real delicate balance though; we don't want to make kids paranoid," Rotbart said. "We need to be prudent. Germs for people who are healthy really aren't a big deal."

Staying healthy

Rotbart tells parents to make sure their children get enough rest. School-age children should get get 10 to 11 hours of sleep every night, according to the CDC. Sleep deprivation lowers the immune system's ability to fight off infection.

Exercise, Rotbart says, is another effective way to keep kids healthy. He suggests a daily dose of 40 minutes of running-around time, even in the winter. If it's cold, children need to keep their jackets zipped and hats on their heads.

"Your mother was right: Studies have shown that people who do bundle up against the cold are less likely to catch colds later on in the year," Rotbart said.

Your child's diet also plays an important role in warding off illness. Foods rich in vitamin C (PDF) don't keep colds away altogether, but they can shorten the length of a cold. And make sure little Johnny or Julie gets a flu shot early in the season.

In order to stop germs from ever entering the body, hand-washing is key. Every year, Miller invites a nurse to teach her first graders the proper techniques.

"I've got a bathroom with a poster about hand-washing right in my classroom, and if I don't hear them wash their hands -- even if I'm in the middle of a lesson and the principal is doing my evaluation -- I stop what I'm doing and say, 'Wash your hands,' " Miller said. "It's that important."

Judy Harrison, a foods and nutrition professor at the University of Georgia, says studies she's conducted show that most kids don't know how to wash their hands properly (only 28% knew the right method). Properly washed hands cut down on gastrointestinal problems, as well as the cold and flu. Harrison designed the "Wash Your Paws, Georgia!" (PDF) hand-washing initiative.

"I teach them to sing 'happy birthday' to yourself twice to make sure they wash for at least 20 seconds," Harrison said. She also teaches them to clean between their fingers and around their fingernails and to use a clean paper towel or a hot air dryer to dry off.

Tell us your story
We love to hear from our audience. Follow @CNNHealth on Twitter and Facebook for the latest health news and let us know what we're missing.

A lot of people think hand sanitizer is better, she says, but really, washing with soap and water is the most effective way to eliminate germs.

"My kids are obsessed with hand sanitizer," said Amy Falcone, a seventh-grade science teacher who teaches at Wood Dale Junior High in the suburbs of Chicago. "It's a part of the school supply list we send home for kids to bring, along with Kleenex. I'd prefer they wash their hands, but I know it will do in a pinch."

Falcone used to think the "school plague" was more of an elementary school thing, but with increasing pressure to get good grades, some older students do come to school sick. And that gets others sick.

"I've never been a sickly person, but I did catch strep throat about three years ago," Falcone said. "I've never had it in my entire life, but I had it. Got rid of it. Got it again."

Falcone's been teaching for more than 20 years. She's noticed that some of the newer teachers are getting sick more often.

"When you are new, you are killing yourself to impress, and some young teachers really do forget to take care of themselves," Falcone said.

She advises new teachers to make sure they keep up with their own healthy habits. "Eat healthy, get sleep, do whatever you do to reduce stress."

Falcone coaches her school's Girls on the Run program. It helps her and her students decompress, as well as stay in shape. "That's especially important for me as a teacher. I can't really miss school," she said. "I've got kids lined up at my door every morning. I need to be there for them. Staying healthy is totally doable."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
Actress Emma Watson not only stirred the Internet with her recent moving speech before the United Nations, but she also joined a cadre of celebrities who have used their star power to bring attention to gender issues.
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1523 GMT (2323 HKT)
Clemson University suspends mandatory online course that asked questions about sex lives, drinking and drug use.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Does the word "virginity" evoke discussions of sexuality or religious belief? That's the question residents in Fayetteville, Arkansas, are asking after a junior high student was asked to change out of a T-shirt that read "Virginity Rocks."
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1438 GMT (2238 HKT)
Not knowing exactly where her ancestors come from has always bothered Kelly Wallace, but she's heartened to learn about some of the famous cousins she never knew she had.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
Many superstar athletes from Michael Vick to Tiger Woods were ultimately forgiven by fans and the public. Could Ray Rice also get a second chance?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
The indictment of NFL star Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges has revealed sharp differences in cultural, regional and generational attitudes toward using physical force to discipline kids.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 1324 GMT (2124 HKT)
cara reedy
The world often treats little people like Cara Reedy as less than human. She's learned to stand up for herself and shout back.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
The unheard voices of domestic abuse spoke up on CNN iReport when Rihanna's story of abuse came to light. In light of the Ray Rice controversy, we decided to bring back these stories that are still just as powerful as the day they were told.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
More than 3 million children witness domestic violence every year, and the damage can last a lifetime.
September 17, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
As media outlets Monday circulated video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator, many wondered why the woman -- now his wife -- could remain with him.
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1652 GMT (0052 HKT)
The ways mother-daughter book clubs can help empower girls are the focus of a new book, "Her Next Chapter."
September 4, 2014 -- Updated 1344 GMT (2144 HKT)
Colleges are working to prevent sexual assault by educating students on affirmative consent, or only "yes means yes."
September 5, 2014 -- Updated 1443 GMT (2243 HKT)
A mom questions if she wants her daughters seeing a "sado-masochistic relationship, dressed up as a Hollywood love fantasy?"
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
In 2014, why is society still so incredibly uncomfortable with public breastfeeding? Kelly Wallace gets to the root of the controversy.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Seven years ago, Barbara Theodosiou, then a successful entrepreneur, stopped going to meetings, leaving the house and taking care of herself. She grew increasingly distraught -- her two children were addicts.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, throws America's problem with talking about race into sharp relief.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0225 GMT (1025 HKT)
Mo'ne Davis is the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series. She's an inspiration, but will she change the face of the sport?
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 0036 GMT (0836 HKT)
There is a reason why when people post pictures of themselves during their middle school years on Facebook for "Throw Back Thursday," we all stop and take notice.
It could cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise your child -- and that's not even including college costs, according to new government estimates.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 0409 GMT (1209 HKT)
From parent to son, uncle to nephew, there's a raw, private conversation being revived in America in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
August 14, 2014 -- Updated 0150 GMT (0950 HKT)
Children sometimes get left out of our conversations about mental illness. The truth is, they suffer too.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 2114 GMT (0514 HKT)
CNN's Kat Kinsman says that talking freely about personal mental health and suicidal thoughts can help others.
August 12, 2014 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
morning person
Easy tips on how to improve everything from your dinner order to the song in your head to your career.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 1733 GMT (0133 HKT)
The case of an Arizona mom who left her kids in a car during a job interview highlights the fluid line between bad parenting and criminal behavior.
August 6, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
A children's book about gun rights has benefited from an unexpected boost in sales after it became the subject of a mocking segment on a talk show.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Some campers and counselors keep the campfire flames burning with summer flings that become lifetime commitments.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1143 GMT (1943 HKT)
After letting her 7-year-old son walk from their home to a park to play, a Florida mother faces up to five years in jail for child neglect.
September 2, 2014 -- Updated 1916 GMT (0316 HKT)
Lindsey Rogers-Seitz, who lost her son in a hot car, hopes mandatory technology in cars and car seats will stop child death from heatstroke in cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1442 GMT (2242 HKT)
Not to mention your jeans, bras and pillows? Here's a definitive guide to keeping all your quarters clean.
Imagination Playgrounds have snaking tunnels, platforms and springy mats just like any other playground. But they're different in one fundamental way -- they're built by kids.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1535 GMT (2335 HKT)
Grammy Award-winning singer Sarah McLachlan, a 46-year-old divorced mom of two girls, talks about parenting, sex and whether women can have it all.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain.
July 21, 2014 -- Updated 2041 GMT (0441 HKT)
The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she was working sparks debate over how young is too young to leave a child alone.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
CNN's Kelly Wallace reveals 5 common parenting mistakes that many parents admit to making.
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
Is it a bad idea for parents to let kids drink underage at home, or does an early sip make drinking less taboo? Studies are divided on the subject, which is a tough nut for parents to crack.
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT