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Start the School Year Off on the Right Foot

August 24, 2010

Washington Hospital Pediatrician Offers Tips for Keeping Your Student Healthy

It’s hard to believe summer is almost over. For many, that means another school year is about to begin. As you send your children back to class, consider the steps you need to take to ensure they make the grade when it comes to health.

"Children are better able to learn when they are in good health," said Dr. Dennis Unson, a pediatrician at South East Bay Pediatrics and a member of the Washington Hospital medical staff. "The first step is to make sure your child’s vaccinations are current."

The state requires students to be immunized against a number of diseases. Unson said schools are good about notifying parents about the vaccinations that are needed.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend that children also get an influenza vaccination to reduce their chances of getting sick with the flu, according to Unson. He said the flu vaccine should be available in September and children older than 2 years can get the mist form instead of the shot.

"You should get your child the flu vaccine as soon as it’s available," he added.

Unson said it’s also important for children who are 10 or 11 years old to get a pertussis booster. There is currently an outbreak of pertussis, also called whooping cough, in California. While most children have completed their boosters by kindergarten, immunity decreases over time, he explained. Depending on which specific vaccine your physician carries, the combined tetanus and pertussis booster (Tdap) can be given at age 10 or 11, he said.

Addressing children’s individual medical needs is another major issue, according to Unson. He said parents should make arrangements with the school regarding any medical issues that might impact their child.

"For example, if your child has asthma, you need to make sure the school has an inhaler on hand and any other medication," he said. "A treatment plan should be on file with the school nurse. The same goes for diabetes and other chronic diseases."

School personnel should also know if your child has any food allergies. "Some food allergies, especially to peanuts, could cause an anaphylactic reaction," Unson said. "That could be very dangerous. If your child has a serious food allergy, or has a severe allergy to bees, the school nurse should have an epinephrine pen available in case of a reaction."

He said parents should make sure the school has current contact information in case of an emergency, including a backup plan if the parents can’t be reached. Children should be told who has the authority to pick them up, and be instructed never to leave with anyone else, he added.

Healthy Habits

According to Unson, it’s also important to practice habits that keep your child safe and healthy. He said getting plenty of rest, eating right, reducing the amount of screen time, and staying active all go a long way toward keeping your child healthy.

"If you drive your kids to school, make sure they always wear seatbelts and younger children are in car seats or booster seats," he said. "If they ride their bikes, they need to wear helmets."

Unson cautions parents about the heavy backpacks many school children carry to and from school. He said backpacks should be worn in the middle of the back and both straps should be used for even distribution of the weight.

"If they are carrying a lot of books, I recommend using a rolling backpack," he said. "Start early so they get into the habit of using the rolling type, because when they get older, they resist. Some kids might not think it’s ‘cool,’ but it sure saves their backs."

Unson encourages parents to get their kids thinking about eating right from an early age as well. "Kids need to eat a healthy lunch, but a lot of cafeteria food is processed and high in fat and sugar," he said.

He recommends packing school lunches at home so parents know exactly what their kids are eating.

"Pack the lunches with your children," Unson suggested. "It’s a great teaching point for kids. By involving them, they learn how to make their own healthy choices."

Using sunscreen is another healthy habit Unson thinks children should learn. "Especially if your kids play sports or are involved in other outdoor activities," he said. "Make sure they put on sunscreen and learn how to protect themselves from the sun’s harmful rays."

Unson said these habits will help your child stay healthy during the school year and into adulthood. "The beginning of the school year is a good time to set healthy routines," he added.

Whooping Cough: What You Need to Know
If you’re not sure when you had your last whooping cough booster, especially if you are around small children a lot, now is a good time to check with your primary care physician about getting immunized. The vaccine is available for all who need it. Washington Hospital's website has a new webpage dedicated to whooping cough information. Visit www.whhs.com/cough or visit the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control at www.cdc.gov.

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