Seasonal Illness Info


During the fall and winter seasons, many infections circulate in schools and cause respiratory (breathing) illnesses. Transmission (spread) occurs by close contact and is spread by droplets that become airborne during the cough or from dirty tissues or hands that were contaminated with the germs. Antibiotics do not help viruses, although in some cases your healthcare provider may prescribe anti-viral drugs. Antibiotics are only helpful for bacterial illness. The common cold, Influenza A or B, influenza-like illnesses, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), and SARS have some similar symptoms and may be difficult to tell apart at first since all may have cough. So, how does a parent tell them apart? Sometimes you cannot and may need help from your healthcare provider to be sure. Yet, here are some guidelines to assist you.



Influenza A and B (Flu) and a cold are caused by viruses. Initial symptoms of flu and colds are similar. Because these illnesses are all around us all the time, we do not routinely send home notices alerting you of an outbreak. In general, during cold and flu season, unless your child is significantly ill, the best place for them is in school where they have all already been exposed to the same germs and where they are less likely to expose other more vulnerable people to their routine bouts of cold and flu, like the very young or very old, as might occur walking in a mall.  Instead, we ask you to monitor your child and not to send them to school for the following reasons:

  1. Your child has a fever greater than 100.4° orally, including a fever that requires active control with medication to keep down to normal
  2. Your child is too sleepy or ill to profit from sitting in class all day
  3. Your child has a significant cough that makes him/her feel uncomfortable or disrupts the class
  4. Your child has a sore throat that is severe, accompanied by fever and/or simply feeling ill, that persists longer than 48 hours, or after known exposure to a confirmed case of Streptococcal throat infection
  5. Your child has honey-crusted sores around the nose or mouth that might be impetigo, OR a rash in various stages including boils, sores and bumps that may be chicken pox, OR a significant rash accompanied by other symptoms of illness
  6. Your child has red, runny eyes until cleared as non-contagious by a physician
  7. Your child has large amount of discolored nasal discharge, especially if accompanied by facial pain or headache
  8. Your child has severe ear pain or sinus pain or drainage from the ear or dark green nasal discharge accompanied by sinus pain that needs to be evaluated by your health care provider
  9. Your child has severe headache, especially if accompanied by fever, which should be evaluated by your health care provider.
  10. Your child has any condition that you think may be serious or contagious to others.


The common cold is caused by any number of viruses. There are so many viruses that cause the common cold that a healthy child might get a new virus several times a month when they first begin attending daycare or school, and still be completely normal and able to fight infection. The average adult gets 1-3 respiratory illnesses each year. The common cold usually starts with a low-grade fever, a runny or stuffy nose, sore throat, cough, and a sense of just not feeling well (malaise). There usually are not muscle aches or joint pain. A cold may last a few days to ten days, and generally go away without anything more than over-the-counter cold preparations, rest, and tender loving care.



The flu can cause more serious illness than a common cold and usually includes more generalized body illness, such as muscle aches, and higher fever, while the common cold symptoms are usually limited to the head and throat. Both can cause a runny nose, cough, sore throat, and watery eyes. Both last about a week to ten days, but after a bout with the Flu, people can feel worn out even longer, up to two weeks, before they feel back to themselves. While you might get the common cold several times during a season, it would be unusual to get the flu more than once a year, though there are different flu varieties.



Pertussis is a type of bacteria. It begins with a mild upper respiratory illness and progresses to a worsening cough, often having a loud sound, a whoop, when breathing in. The cough can be so severe as to cause vomiting. Fever is usually absent or low grade. Symptoms gradually lessen over several weeks, but can linger for several months. Classic Pertussis lasts six to ten weeks on average. However, cough and “not feeling yourself” may persist. Patients are most contagious before the whooping phase of the illness and for about two weeks after the onset of cough. Antibiotics can decrease the spread of disease. In schools a child must be on antibiotics for five days before they are allowed to re-enter. The school sends out alerts for all bacterial illness outbreaks, including Pertussis, and it is important to tell your physician if your child becomes ill that you have been notified of possible school exposure.



SARS usually begins with a fever of at least 100.4°F (38°C). Other possible symptoms include headache, an overall feeling of discomfort, and body aches--much like flu or flu-like illness. Some people with SARS also experience mild respiratory symptoms, but not usually a runny nose. After a period of 2 to 7 days, SARS patients may develop a dry cough (the cough is "non-productive"--it does not produce phlegm). In addition, most SARS patients have visited an area where SARS has been diagnosed or have been in contact with others infected with SARS. We have not had an outbreak of SARS in upstate New York, but you would be notified if ever that should change.



Your healthcare provider should evaluate severe respiratory illness, especially if accompanied by fever or if associated with foreign travel. A health care provider should also evaluate prolonged cough that does not go away after about ten days or if it seems to be getting better then worsens again. Some infections that start off as a virus can turn into a bacterial infection, like an ear infection, sinus infection, or pneumonia. So, after the first 48 to 72 hours of an illness, you should be seeing that symptoms are not getting worse, but have begun to level off or even lessen. If not, and at any time that your child is severely ill, having trouble breathing, or seems worse, it is a good idea to check with your private healthcare provider.



You can decrease your chances of getting any respiratory infections, including the common cold, by frequently washing your hands and avoiding touching your nose, eyes, and mouth. Teach your family to do the same. If everyone did this meticulously, we could all avoid most illnesses.  During cold and flu season, you may want to limit casual social kissing, as well.

If your children are not good about hand-washing using soap and water after being in the bathroom or before eating, you can try placing the newer hand cleaning gels in strategic locations around the house and encourage them to use those. Suggest when they wash their hands to sing Happy Birthday to themselves twice to be sure they are washing their hands long enough. If they use the gels, they should rub their hands all over and between their fingers until the gel dries.


Universal immunization with Pertussis vaccine is recommended for children younger than age 7. It is not recommended for persons older than age 7 at this time. Immunization can decrease the risk of disease or lessen the severity of illness, but it is not a guarantee against the illness. Also, recent experience is showing that immunity from childhood Pertussis vaccine may wane in adolescents, and we are seeing outbreaks in schools most commonly in middle and high school age groups. Research on booster shots is being done.


The flu vaccine is still very valuable as the best prevention against influenza and its severe complications, including pneumonia, hospitalization, and even death. Anyone in a high-risk category is eligible to receive the vaccine. Antiviral agents may lessen flu symptoms and may be indicated in people with weakened immune systems, such as from chronic and serious disease. Your own physician can help you with this matter as well as to assist you in getting the flu vaccine for anyone considered in a high risk category for complications associated with the flu.


With the flu vaccine in short supply this year, this is a good time to stress the point of good hygiene. Remind your children of the importance of thorough and frequent hand washing with warm water and soap before eating, after toileting, and after sneezing, coughing, wiping their noses, after using a public phone or computer, and any other time their hands are dirty.


Please be sure to send in a personal supply of tissue if your child has a cold and encourage them to use tissues to cover their mouths and noses when sneezing or coughing, and to use the tissue for wiping noses. Please remind them to discard used tissues in a wastebasket immediately after use and to wash their hands.  If you want to send in a small pocket-size bottle of one of the new water-less gels for your child to use, please do so. Teach your child to rub the gel all over their hands and between their fingers until the gel has dried.


A child with a respiratory infection should be kept home from school if he/she is too ill to learn or to remain in class all day, has a fever off fever suppressing medicines, or has a cough so severe it is disruptive to the child’s ability to be in class. As always, it is important that you notify the school if your child will be absent and to send in a written excuse explaining their absence when they return. Finally, if your healthcare provider gives you a diagnosis of a laboratory-proven disease, we ask that you notify the school nurse as soon as you know so that measures can be taken to notify the school community.