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How to Keep Kids Healthy and in School

Ericka Sanders | 10/12/2011, 1:46 p.m.

This time of year can be difficult to stay healthy. Allergy season hasn't quite disappeared, the up and down temperatures cause unwanted sniffles and there are already signs posted at pharmacies advertising flu shots.

For parents, keeping school-age children healthy is a top concern. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2010, 43 percent of children ages 5-17 years missed three or more school days in the past year because of illness or injury. Additionally, six percent missed 11 days or more and an estimated 22 million school days are lost annually because of the common cold.

Dr. Michael McKenna, pediatric hospitalist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health, said this time of year his office is busy. The key to staying healthy, he says, isn't a big secret and everyone can do it.

"The biggest thing everyone can do is wash their hands," said McKenna. "Washing hands frequently minimizes the passing of a virus from one person to another in the family and at school to other children."

In addition to teaching their children to wash their hands, parents should also educate their children that using soap and water is preferred over alcohol-based hand sanitizers. Discarding used tissues properly, along with coughing and sneezing into their elbow, not their hands, and keeping their hands away from their face also helps reduce the spread of germs

Even though January to March is the height of the flu season, now is the time for everyone six months and older to get a flu vaccine. McKenna said entire families getting a flu shot is important because it's the only clear way to insure everyone is protected.

"It's especially important for families that have young children because you can't get the flu shot if you're under 6 months old, so having everyone around that child protected against the flu forms a barrier around the child to make sure they stay healthy," he said.

Aside from the common cold and the flu, asthma also keeps children out of the classroom. The chronic lung disease affects an estimated seven million children under 18 and accounts for more than 14 million absences annually.

Norman Edelman, the American Lung Association's chief medical officer encourages parents to "do an environmental check of the allergens and other irritants that can trigger an attack." He also advises that parents give the school office a plan that specifies symptoms, medications and what to do if an asthma episode does not improve with prescribed medicine.

McKenna adds that parents must continue to give their child's prescribed medication even if it seems their asthma is improving.

"Parents don't notice a difference from day to day but after a couple of weeks of not taking the medication that is when (children) are more at risk for a flare up," he said. "It's really important that if your child is on a controller medication to keep taking it. It's working. The purpose of it is so you don't notice that your child is sick, which is sort of counterintuitive to most medications that we take."

Children can't learn if they're not in school. The best way to guarantee a healthy child is if the parent is healthy.

"The key for parents is eating right, getting the right amount of sleep and if you're on prescribed medications for a chronic illness that you're taking that medicine," said McKenna. "Parents have to keep themselves healthy, so they can take care of their children and so they can help prevent passing on an illness to their child."

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