Avoid the 'Back-to-School Plague'

By Per Gesteland

Each year, as children return to school in the fall, we see a large increase in the cases of the common cold and flu.​

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Each year, as children return to school in the fall, we see a large increase in the cases of the common cold and flu. One of the more common culprits of these illnesses is the parainfluenza virus​ (PIV). PIVs are a group of four common viruses that cause respiratory illnesses in infants and young children. Most illness is mild, requiring no treatment, and going away on its own, but some PIV infections are more serious, resulting in croup, bronchiolitis or pneumonia. Croup is an airway inflammation that causes a strange, barking cough and sometimes trouble breathing. Babies and young children are more likely to develop croup, bronchiolitis, or another serious illness from PIV. 

PIV spreads from person to person through close personal contact, in the air by coughing and sneezing, and by touching objects or surfaces that have HPIVs on them. These viruses can stay in the air for over an hour or on surfaces for a few hours and still infect people. The number of infections is highest in the spring, summer, and fall. 

After a person is infected, it takes about two to seven days before symptoms become apparent. These may include fever, runny nose and cough. Other symptoms may include ear infection, irritability and decreased appetite.

Although there are currently no vaccines for PIV, you and your children can do several things to reduce your risk of being infected. 

Wash your hands with soap and water frequently and don’t share utensils, cups or water bottles with your friends. With children returning to school this fall, this is extremely important, especially since PIV is often spread through the air and surface contact. Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, especially when in public places or around other people. Also, avoid contact with those that are sick.

Even if you do all these things, there is still a chance that you will contract PIV. In fact, elementary school children get eight to 12 colds or cases of the flu each year. In these cases you can help prevent the spread of your infection to others by staying at home while you are sick. If you are around people, avoid physical contact. Be sure to cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze. Keeping surfaces around you clean will also help prevent the spread of the illness.

There are no antiviral treatments for PIVs, but if you or your child contracts a PIV, there are things you can do to help relieve the symptoms and help with recovery:
  • Take over-the-counter medications for symptoms like pain and fever, nasal stuffiness or cough (consult with your doctor for which medications are recommended for you or your child’s symptoms, as many medicines have side effects and some are not to be given to young children)
  • Use a room humidifier or take a hot shower to help ease a sore throat and cough
  • Drink plenty of liquids
  • Stay home and rest