back to school illnesses thmb

5 Back to School Illnesses You Should Know About (That Aren’t COVID-19) 

The dog days of summer. The leaves are turning golden. The days are getting shorter. And children everywhere are returning from their summer holidays and bringing with them millions of bugs from around the world to spread to their classmates. Here’s our guide to the top 5 back to school illnesses and how to avoid them. 

Hand, foot and mouth

Caused by a group of viruses known as enteroviruses. Very common in the Autumn months. Causes raised red lesions to develop in and around the mouth, on the palms and soles. The spots can also affect the buttocks and genitalia and extend up the arms and legs.  The lesions, which can be uncomfortable are typically accompanied by a fever above 38 and lethargy. Children may often complain of a sore mouth or throat. Although children under 5 are most commonly affected, it can affect people of any age. A further bit of bad news: because hand, foot and mouth can be caused by several viruses children can get it more than once. 

How to prevent Hand Foot and Mouth:

The virus is spread through coughs and sneezes but also through faeces. So if a child has the virus and does not wash their hands thoroughly after going to the toilet they can spread the virus. 

  • Washing hands thoroughly after going to the toilet
  • Carefully disposing of nappies
  • Not sharing cups, beakers, cutlery and towels. 
  • Encouraging children to cough or sneeze into the crook of their elbow. 
  • Promptly disposing of used tissues. 

The virus can be passed out in the stool for several weeks afterwards so it’s important to maintain good hand hygiene several weeks after having the illness. 


Like hand, foot and mouth, chickenpox is another viral illness that is characterised by blisters. It also spreads by coughs and sneezes and well as by direct contact with the fluid from the blisters. It is extremely contagious. Unlike Hand, Foot and Mouth, the spots of chickenpox are itchy. The blisters come out in crops and are usually preceded by a high fever. Headache and tummy pain are also common. Generally, the illness is mild but it can be much more severe in older children and adults as well as those people who do not have strong immune systems. Occasionally, children can suffer from serious complications such as bacterial skin infections and pneumonia can occur. Chickenpox is also potentially dangerous for pregnant women who have not previously had chickenpox. 

How to prevent Chickenpox:

  • The best way to prevent chickenpox is through immunisation. The two-dose schedule gives 99% immunity. 
  • If your child does have chickenpox the best way to prevent spread is to ensure they stay off school or nursery for 5 days from the onset of the rash. 

Acute Conjunctivitis

Infectious conjunctivitis causes pink eyes often with yellow discharge. It can be caused by bacteria or viruses, which occur in almost equal numbers. Most of the time conjunctivitis will resolve by itself. However, depending on the cause and situation conjunctivitis can sometimes progress rapidly so it is always worthwhile having it checked by a doctor. Tears contain enzymes that help get rid of the bacteria or virus that has caused the problem. However, topical antibiotics can help speed the resolution and prevent transmission.

How to prevent Conjunctivitis:

  • Not sharing towels and pillows. 
  • Washing hands, particularly after touching the eyes. 
  • Cleaning away any discharge from the eyes regularly. 

Cold and Flu

Runny nose, cough, sneezing and sore throat characterise a cold. Flu is more severe with fever, muscle aches and pain and lethargy. Young children in nursery get on average 5-6 colds a year but children in nursery can get 12 colds per year.  The peak time to get colds and flu is during the colder months of the year. 

How to Prevent Colds and Flu: 

  • The annual flu vaccination can help prevent getting flu
  • Encouraging good hand washing
  • Coughing in the crook of the elbow. 
  • Maintaining a physical distance from infected individuals.
  • A daily probiotic has been shown to reduce the number of upper respiratory tract infections children get in a year. 
  • Ensuring children have adequate sleep can help maintain a robust immune system. 


Croup is a very common infection that mainly affects children of nursery and pre-school age. It is most common in the Autumn and early winter months. It is caused by a variety of viruses but the most common cause is the Parainfluenza virus. The name is thought to derive from an old Scottish word, roup, meaning to cry out in a hoarse voice. The symptoms typically start like a standard cold before the characteristic barking seal-like cough and horse voice appear. Croup is generally mild and self-limiting but occasionally can be severe so it is important if you are concerned about your child to see your doctor for an assessment. 

How to prevent Croup:

  • Try to minimise contact with other children who have been diagnosed with croup. 
  • Ensure that your child is in an environment that is free from respiratory irritants such as smoke that can irritate the respiratory tract and impair the natural defences against infection. 
  • Making sure that your child’s vaccinations are up to date can prevent some of the causes of croup. 

Dr Hugh Coyne

Private GP