Every school year, there comes a short period where it seems every other person in the school is sick, be it students, teachers, or other staff. The types of illnesses seem to vary each year as well, but are in most cases illnesses which are easily passed from one person to another but aren’t necessarily severe.  

In years gone by, chicken pox was a common illness that would be seen in classes, but thanks to vaccines that protect against varicella, the virus responsible for chicken pox, it is not as common as it once was. Another common childhood illness that goes through schools, particularly in the younger grades, is parvovirus B19, or slapped cheek syndrome. Another easily passed illness is conjunctivitis, or as is more commonly known, pink eye.  

Dr. Stanley Enebeli is a Medical Health Officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority. With word at least one of these illnesses is seeing a resurgence in schools in the southeast, we reached out to him to find out about the prevention and treatment of these illnesses.  

Dr. Enebeli pointed out pink eye is often caused by either a virus or a bacterial infection.  

“Viral pink eye most often is caused by a virus known as adenovirus, which is a common respiratory virus that can also cause a sore throat or upper respiratory infection, and the bacterial pink eye is often caused by bacteria we find in the environment, like staph or strep,” the doctor explained. “They spread very easily.” 

The symptoms of pink eye include redness in the whites of the eye, swelling of the eyelids, an itchy or burning feeling of the eyelids, and tearing as well as a clear or whiteish discharge from the eyes.  

“If you have pink eye, I strongly encourage avoid touching or rubbing your eye,” Dr. Enebeli said. “I know sometimes that could be difficult with the itchy feeling.” 

Cleaning linens is also important, so that way there are no concerns about it lingering around on a pillow case or a towel.  

If it is viral pink eye, a person can return when symptoms start to improve, which can be upwards of seven days. For bacterial pink eye, it too lasts for around seven to ten days, but in some cases, antibiotic treatment may be needed. If there is any pain in the eye, Dr. Enebeli recommended reaching out to your medical provider about the best treatment option.  

Chickenpox, while a lot rarer than it was in years past, still comes up now and then. Like pink eye, it is very contagious but is spread through sneezing, coughing, sharing food or drinks, or touching the fluid that comes from the sores the virus produces.  

In addition to the sores, other symptoms include fever, fatigue and respiratory symptoms such as coughing.  

The biggest reason for the rarity of chickenpox is the availability of vaccines, explained Dr. Enebeli. In addition to helping prevent the transmission of the chicken pox virus, it can also prevent something else from happening when a person gets older – shingles. This happens when the varicella virus reactivates later in life.  

“In terms of treatment, people who have chicken pox should avoid scratching the lesions to prevent it being infected with other bacteria that could cause skin and soft tissue infections,” Dr. Enebeli advised. “Tylenol can be used to help with fevers and pain, and cold baths also to help reduce the itching.” 

Those who are in a high-risk category such as those who are immunocompromised, pregnant, and the very young should contact their healthcare provider if they are in contact with someone with chicken pox.  

Dr. Enebeli also discouraged something common in decades past – chicken pox parties, where someone would become deliberately exposed to the virus so that way they develop the immunity to the disease for later in life.  

The third illness that appears frequently, but isn’t as well-known as chicken pox or pink eye, is slapped cheek syndrome. Also known as Fifth Disease, it gets the name because of the bright red rash on the cheeks that can sometimes develop.  

“Fifth disease for most people is usually a mild illness that lasts a few weeks, but it could be more serious for people who are immunocompromised,” Dr. Enebeli said of the illness. “Symptoms usually appear about two weeks after exposure to the virus, and in terms of symptom presentation, it initially presents like a flu-like illness with a runny nose, sore throat, headache.” 

He added for some people, the flu-like symptoms may be so mild they aren’t noticed, but the other symptoms, such as the red rash and the joint pain, can last for a while.  

For those who are pregnant, there can be severe complications if exposed to parvovirus B19, and in those situations, you are recommended to contact your healthcare.  

Aside from the vaccine for varicella, Dr. Enebeli noted the best ways to prevent a lot of these diseases are something pretty simple: washing your hands regularly, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, and staying home when you are sick.