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Common Contagious Infections

Creepy, crawly things - enough to send a shudder through any parent. Add to that skin inflammations and eye infections. Your child frequently is at risk while at a place you normally consider safe: the day-care center or elementary school. Insect infestations (like head lice) and contagious infectious diseases (like impetigo, ringworm, and pink eye) are commonly found in environments where they can be easily transmitted by direct contact among children.

These diseases also tend to carry a bit of social stigma. Parents typically react with horror when they realize their child is infected: "How could my child have head lice? We keep her so clean!"

Parents needn't worry about their children's cleanliness, according to Kathy Trczinski, RN, MSN, CRNP, a nurse practitioner at the duPont Hospital for Children. These diseases are quite common among all socioeconomic groups and are transmitted simply because children are together in close quarters, which increases the exchange of germs. If your child becomes infected, don't worry about how or from whom she got it. Concentrate on getting her well. Here Trczinski gives you the scoop on some unpleasant (but curable!) infections your child may bring home from school or day care.

Ringworm (Tinea corporis)
What it is: A fungal infection that usually appears on the skin of exposed areas such as the face, upper extremities, and trunk as reddish patches, often scaly or blistered. Ringworm on the scalp can cause destruction of the hair shaft, resulting in bald patches.

Causes: Most often transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, or the sharing of combs, brushes, towels, etc. Animals also transmit ringworm, though rarely.

Treatment: Prolonged use of an antifungal cream is usually completely effective. Some of these creams are over the counter, others by prescription. Your doctor or pharmacist can advise you. The cream will not produce immediate results; treat for up to three continuous weeks. Make sure the child bathes thoroughly with soap and water and dries off completely, since fungus thrives in moist areas. If the scalp is affected, oral medication will be required, and treatment is rather prolonged - many weeks is not unusual. Your physician can prescribe an appropriate antifungal medication.

Return to day care/school: 24 hours after treatment begins.

Head Lice
a louse What it is: A grayish, wingless, flat parasite that lives on the host's blood. The lice hatch eggs (nits) that attach to the shafts of hair on the head, eyebrows and even lashes. Lice are hard to notice unless you look closely. If your child seems to be scratching his head vigorously, make an inspection.

Causes: Transmitted by sharing of combs, brushes, hats, ponytail holders, barrettes, etc. Lice can also live for one to two days on a couch or chair.

Treatment: To get rid of the lice, the eggs (nits) must be removed. There are a number of over-the-counter shampoo treatments that work well. Ask your pharmacist for a recommendation. Most kits also contain a fine-tooth comb used to comb the dead nits out of the hair after shampooing. In reading the package information, be sure the shampoo kills both eggs and lice.

Return to day care/school: After treatment, the child can go to school the next day.

What it is: A contagious skin inflammation caused by bacterial (streptococcal or staphylococcal) infection. The bacteria may enter when the skin is broken by a bite, scrape, burn, or scratch. Impetigo is marked by blisters that become pus-filled, then erupt and form yellow crusts.

Causes: Direct contact with the moist discharge of the lesions.

Treatment: The infection, if mild, may usually be controlled successfully with topical antibiotic ointment, which your physician can prescribe. Keep the skin around the lesions clean, and expose the skin to the air to encourage drying. If the infection is widespread, severe, or near the mouth where the antibiotic cream could be licked off, an oral antibiotic will be prescribed.

Return to day care/school: Usually 24 hours after treatment has begun.

Conjunctivitis (Pink eye)
What it is: Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the transparent mucous membrane (the conjunctiva) lining the eyelids and eyeballs. It can be caused by viruses, bacteria, allergies, or - in newborns - tear ducts that don't completely open. When it's bacterial or viral, conjunctivitis is dubbed "pink eye" and may be highly contagious. The infection results in red, watery, often itchy eyes, that emit secretions that crust and can cause the eyelids to stick together.

Causes: Colds and poor hand-washing habits; sharing of eye makeup in adolescents.

Treatment: Your physician can prescribe antibiotic drops or ointment.

Return to day care/school: Once the infection has subsided, usually after a day or two, the child can return to school.