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A parent’s guide to keeping kids healthy this school term

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Smiling children on a school trip

With winter in full swing, now is a good time for parents to familiarise themselves with some of the common illnesses that could disrupt children's studies or even cause more serious illness during the colder months.

This blog post covers some of the seasonal illnesses that tend to peak during winter, as well as steps you can take now and throughout the coming term to help protect your family, including from cold weather. We’ll explore available vaccinations, how to recognise symptoms of common illnesses, and how to make informed decisions on whether a sick student is well enough to attend school or college.

Teach good hygiene habits

Good hygiene stops infections from spreading, which means less disrupted learning time.

Teach your child to wash hands properly for 20 seconds, use tissues for coughs and sneezes, and stay away from others when sick. Letting in fresh air can also reduce the spread of airborne viruses. Our e-bug resources for all ages can help you to explain and discuss hygiene habits – and why they are important - to your child or teenager.

Know when to keep your child at home

The start of a new term is a good time to familiarise yourself with the symptoms of common illnesses:

  • It's fine to send your child to school or nursery with a minor cough or common cold if they are otherwise well and do not have a high temperature. But if your child has a fever, they should stay home from school or nursery until they feel better, and the fever has resolved.
  • If they have diarrhoea and/or vomiting, they should stay home for at least 48 hours after the last episode.
  • It is no longer recommended that children and young people are routinely tested for COVID-19 unless directed to by a health professional. But if your child has tested positive for COVID-19, they should try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for 3 days after the day they took the test. Children and young people who usually go to school, college or childcare and who live with someone who has a positive COVID-19 test result should continue to attend as normal.
  • If your child has the symptoms of measles (outlined below) and has not had both doses of the MMR vaccine, they should not attend school.

The NHS has a useful guide to help parents decide whether a child is well enough to go to school, based on their symptoms.

Know how to spot the signs

There are other types of illnesses to watch out for at this time of year, including bacterial infections such as scarlet fever. Although we see cases throughout the year, cases usually peak in the late winter and early spring.

The most common symptoms of scarlet fever include sore throat, fever, swollen neck glands, a bumpy rash on the chest and tummy with a sandpaper-like feel, flushed cheeks and “strawberry tongue”. If you suspect your child has scarlet fever, contact your local GP. Stay away from nursery or school for 24 hours after the first dose of antibiotics.

We are currently seeing the number of cases of measles and mumps increasing in all parts of the country. Measles in particular can be a very serious disease for some children and tragically it can even cause fatalities. The initial symptoms of measles are similar to those for a cold (runny nose; a cough; sneezing; a high temperature; and red, sore, watery eyes) this is followed by white spots in the mouth a few days later, and by a rash on the face and body a few days after that. It's very unlikely to be measles if your child has had both doses of the MMR vaccine or they’ve had measles before. Viral infections such as chickenpox can also spread in schools at any time of year and are highly contagious. An itchy, spotty rash is the main symptom of chickenpox. It can be anywhere on the body.

Ensure your child is up to date with vaccinations

Vaccines provide the best protection against many common but potentially serious illnesses. Over the past decade, fewer children are getting routine vaccines, putting them at risk of serious disease. This leaves schools vulnerable to outbreaks and increases pressure on the NHS.

If your child is up to date with their NHS vaccination schedule, they will already be protected against diseases like whooping cough, measles, mumps and rubella throughout their school career, as most provide lifelong immunity.

Unvaccinated children are at higher risk of contracting these illnesses and having more severe symptoms than vaccinated classmates. They can also spread diseases to others. Check your child’s red book or contact your GP surgery to ensure they are up to date on all vaccines.

School-age children and young people are offered the following vaccinations:

  • Flu: A different flu vaccine is needed every year and is given as a quick and painless nasal spray. Flu vaccination is being offered to all school-age children up to year 11 and for children aged 2 and 3 (on or before 31 August 2023). When you get the electronic or paper consent form, please make sure you return it, so your child doesn’t miss their nasal spray vaccination session.
  • HPV: At age 12 to 13, the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is offered to protect against viruses that can cause genital warts or cancer.
  • MenACWY: 13- to 15-year-olds are offered this vaccine against meningococcal meningitis and septicaemia. This is usually given in year 9 or 10 along with the 3-in-1 teenage booster, but those who missed out can still get it on the NHS until their 25th birthday.
  • For many vaccines, such as the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine (MMR), it is never too late to catch up. Contact your GP practice if your child has not had one or both doses of MMR.

Protect your child from the cold

Low indoor temperatures can have a serious impact on children’s health. Children under the age of 5 are particularly vulnerable. However, the effects of cold, especially in combination with other environmental conditions including damp, can affect children of all ages and particularly those with underlying medical conditions.

UKHSA guidance gives advice on a range of actions you can take to protect your child from cold weather, including:

  • Heating rooms your child spends a lot of time in at home to at least 18o Babies should not get too hot, though or they may be at risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS): there is advice on how to reduce the risk of SIDS.
  • Reducing draughts by fitting simple draught excluders at home
  • Encouraging children to wear several layers of clothing to help to reduce the health effects of cold.

Financial support is also available to help manage the costs of heating your home, especially for those on low incomes. The government has published energy saving tips to help save money on bills.

Through these preventative measures, and by recognising illnesses promptly, you can help your child stay healthy and keep school absences to a minimum this term.

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