Beginning-of-the-year colds expected as kids head back to school

Before the first class bell rang at Tampa's Mitchell Elementary School, kindergarten teacher Kelsey Brady said she had one the most important lessons at the top of her list. 

"We teach them to sneeze into their elbows, and if they happen to sneeze in their hands they have to either go wash them with soap or use hand sanitizer quickly," she said.  "It's new germs to them so they end up getting all these new germs. Usually, after the first couple of months you'll see it taper down -- until the flu season starts.”

After 20 years of teaching, Kristen Nyilas expects a boom in beginning-of-the-year colds.   

"The biggest wave of cold transmission tends to be what some have called the 'September wave' right after kids go back to school in the fall," explained Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers of the University of Texas Austin

The Harvard and Stanford-trained mathematical epidemiologist studies how infectious diseases spread. She said students of all ages get caught up in the “wave.”

"You get this long summer break where people aren’t getting very sick. They aren’t getting many colds,” Meyers continued. “So you have a pool of people just ready to be infected and once those first few cases start it just takes off like wildfire.” 

It’s a wildfire that can spread to parents too. Children spread infections to other children at more than double the rate as adults, catching an average of three to eight colds a year.  Adults average two to four colds per year.

But along with making kids miserable, these respiratory viruses make asthma even worse.  Hospital admissions for asthma reach a peak in the weeks following the start of school.  Meyers said because respiratory infections like the common cold trigger asthma attacks, they were able to trace rates directly back to school sessions. 

"The amount of transmission really is affected by the school calendar.  When kids are at school, transmission is more than double than when kids are home on the weekends or when kids are for summer break, or winter break, or spring break,” she said. "I don't think there is any evidence that the colds you get in September or August are any more severe or virulent than the colds you get in other times of year.” 

Severe or not, Brady said this kindergarten class will be wiped down daily with Lysol.

"I go through probably over 20 of these a year, probably 30 or 40, maybe 50,” she said.

For those children who have asthma, understanding the trends can help prevent a trip to the hospital.

The American Lung Association has several resources to help guide parents. They recommend creating an action plan, quiz your child to see if they are ready to handle their own medications, and review the basics of caring with someone with asthma.