A child’s illness typically strikes concern—and sometimes fear—in a parent. Some illnesses, however, invoke something else: revulsion. But while these conditions are gross, embarrassing, and inconvenient, they’re generally harmless.
We’re talking about typical childhood illness like pinkeye, ringworm, fungal scalp infections, warts, cold sores, impetigo, and head lice.
Leslie Freymann, an Atlanta mother of two, keeps a sense of humor when her kids get yucky ailments such as conjunctivitis—though she admits it can be easier to find the humor after the child’s health has been restored. “I don’t freak out, because I don’t want my kids to freak out,” she says. “And I don’t want to raise hypochondriacs.”
That’s good advice, but when a child is afflicted by one of these conditions, parents are left in a conundrum about whether or not their child should attend school. Yes, the child—and the illness—are contagious to varying degrees, but they’re not usually serious enough to warrant staying home from school, most experts say.
And while Freymann has the ability to remain calm and use humor, many parents make things worse by overreacting due to the “yuck” factor, says Dr. Thom Pantino, an immediate care physician at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at North Point. “As parents, we want to protect our kids,” he says. “[But] we end up making so much of [the icky illness], when our kids don’t care.”
Here are tips for coping with 6 of childhood’s most annoying conditions:
1. Conjunctivitis (pinkeye): When your child wakes up with an eye sealed shut by crusty mucus, conjunctivitis is the likely culprit. A milder version of the ailment might result in a red, itchy eye without the crustiness. When caused by a virus, the benign infection will go away without treatment. Conjunctivitis caused by bacteria usually responds well to antibiotic eye drops. Whether you suspect it’s viral or bacterial, it’s a good idea to take your child to the pediatrician. If he has a puss-filled pink eye, he might also have an ear infection, Dr. Pantino says.
Since conjunctivitis is highly contagious, it’s a good idea to keep your child home from school if her eye is draining (also called “weeping”) and oozing. If the eye is just red, your child can most likely return to school. It’s best to check with your school to learn about its medical policy on conjunctivitis. If you feel your child can return to school, but you’re worried that school officials—likely, the school nurse—wants her to stay home, bring a copy of the antibiotic prescription or a doctor’s note.
2. Ringworm: This condition provokes overreaction in part because of its name. But ringworm has nothing to do with worms—it’s simply a fungal infection on the skin that produces a ring-like rash. According to WebMD, the condition was originally thought to be caused by a worm—hence its medical name, tinea, which is Latin for “worm” or “moth.” Unfortunately, the name has stuck.
Your pediatrician can prescribe a topical ointment for treatment (or recommend an over-the-counter type depending on the severity of the infection). Although the infection might linger for a couple of weeks, it’s no excuse for your child to stay home from school. “Fungal infections on skin are on the low end of what we consider contagious,” Dr. Pantino says.
However, when ringworm appears on a child’s scalp, it needs to be treated with an oral prescription medication, and treatment can take weeks. “It would be crazy to keep a child home all that time,” Dr. Pantino says, though he adds, “I might not do a sleepover the very first night” after a child is diagnosed. It’s also important to provide reassurance that the infection has nothing to do with cleanliness. “Let your child know these infections are not caused by poor hygiene, and there is no reason to be embarrassed,” Dr. Pantino says.
3. Warts: These spots are caused by viruses and often appear on kids’ hands, fingers, and feet. “I don’t think anyone can figure out how they got there,” Dr. Pantino says. “They’re not highly contagious.” Because most warts are harmless, it’s often not necessary to treat them. Warts can hang around for a long time, though, so parents shouldn’t make a big deal of them. For warts that are causing kids embarrassment or discomfort, a dermatologist might recommend freezing, burning, or using a laser treatment for removal.
4. Cold sores: Also known as fever blisters, these sores are caused by a strain of the herpes virus called herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), and typically form around the lips or in an isolated cluster. (Although related, the herpes simplex virus type 2 is the strain that causes genital herpes, so reassure your older child that one strain does not cause, or lead to, the other.) The sores are sometimes filled with fluid and can become crusty and scab over as they heal. Encourage your child not to pick the sores. But if the sores ooze, they should be covered with a small bandage. In rare cases, your child might need to stay home from school for a day. In severe cases, a doctor might prescribe medication. But for the vast majority of cold sores, time is the only treatment needed—or that works.
5. Impetigo: The diagnosis of this blistery strep or staph skin infection is often followed by intense parental gross-out, according to Dr. Pantino. But it’s not a serious condition. Impetigo sores or blisters usually appear on the hands, face, or neck, and a prescription antibiotic ointment or oral medication will knock the infection out. The lesions should be covered with a bandage, and your child may return to school the day after treatment has started, Dr. Pantino says.
6. Lice: Despite the disgust factor, no one needs to be embarrassed about lice, says Richard Pollack, PhD, a research instructor at the Harvard School of Public Health and president and CSO of IdentifyUS/LLC, a firm that specializes in identifying and treating head lice, bed bugs, and ticks. Pollack, who has extensively studied lice infestations around the world, says, “Head lice have nothing to do with hygiene or housekeeping, nor are head lice as prevalent or as contagious as we’ve been led to believe.”
Pollack says symptoms of lice can include persistent scratching of the scalp due to intense itching; a ticklish feeling near the scalp; sores on the scalp caused by scratching; and swollen lymph nodes in the front and back of the neck. However, he says, not all children with active infestations have these symptoms.
Most schools have policies that require students with lice—or lice eggs, which are tiny specks called nits—to stay home until they are lice- and nit-free. Proponents of no-nit policies say strict enforcement is necessary to stop the spread of head lice. However, Pollack believes such policies are misguided. He cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advises that children should not be kept out of school because of suspected head lice, and children with confirmed infestations should be allowed to return as soon as treatment begins.
To treat head lice, read our detailed companion story, Handling Head Lice. And if your child’s teacher or school nurse insists that your child stay home because of nits, refer her to Pollack’s webpage on Head Lice Information and Frequently Asked Questions as well as the CDC page on head lice in schools.
Keep It All in Perspective
For any of the above-mentioned conditions, parents should ask their child’s doctor for a handout or other printed information about the illness, which can offer reassurance. Dr. Pantino says giving parents a handout from a reputable source when their child is diagnosed with something like ringworm or impetigo can often calm them. “Seeing something in print validates that it’s not serious,” he says.
Freymann, the Atlanta mother, recently opined on her blog, The Twisted Mother, about a side effect of her children’s icky illnesses: the fact that Mom can get them too. For example, after her son had a mild case of conjunctivitis, Freymann herself developed an intense infection in both eyes.
On her blog, she shares both helpful hints for parents about kids’ illnesses, such as “Don’t use your child’s expired medication,” as well as humorous tips, such as “Use [an] affliction as an excuse not to return emails for a couple of days.”
Humor aside, she says she keeps her child’s minor illnesses in perspective.
“I have friends who have lost their children to cancer and bad accidents,” she says. “So pinkeye, head lice, warts, ringworm...bring it on, I can deal. I’m sure of it.”