Teaching Healthy Habits

Health conversations for both parents and children as they start school


The school year brings up a variety of health issues for both parents and children. At some point every parent has to make a judgment call about whether or not to send their sick child to school or keep them home. After consulting with parents and pharmacists, Ask Your Pharmacist has developed this handy checklist to help you decide not only whether your child is too sick for school, but what your next steps should be, depending on the illness.

It’s also important to educate young children about their health, well-being and safety as they become more independent and spend longer periods of time away from you.

Your community pharmacist can be a useful resource in both these regards. They can be a great source of advice in working out whether your child is too sick for school and whether they should see a doctor or not. A trip to your local pharmacy can also be a great way to initiate health and hygiene conversations with your children.

You may also be visiting your local pharmacy to update your first aid kit; stock up on sunscreen; or if your child has asthma, purchase a second asthma inhaler for their school bag. This provides a great opportunity to introduce a range of topics. Also, remember that your pharmacist does much more than dispense medication, they are a convenient first point of contact for health advice. When talking to your child, it’s important to keep things age appropriate. Rather than lecture, use questions as a conversation starter. Here are some topics to get you started:

What does it mean to be sun-smart?
When looking at sunscreens you could have a conversation about what it means to be sun-smart. Australians have one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world[1]. You might remember the Cancer Council's health campaign that reminded children to ‘slip, slop and slap’? Well, this has been extended to include 'seek' and 'slide' - ‘Slip’ on protective clothing; ‘slop’ on SPF30 or higher sunscreen; ‘slap’ on a broad-brimmed hat; 'seek' shade; and 'slide' on sunnies. There are many sunscreens specifically formulated for children and your pharmacist can help you find the right sunscreen for your child’s age and skin. If your child has eczema the sun can really dry out their skin which can lead to more flare-ups. Your pharmacist may recommend a sunscreen product that works better for children with eczema, so it’s important that your child knows to use their sunscreen rather than the sunscreen kept in their classroom.

How are germs spread?
Looking at the hand sanitisers can be a good introduction to a discussion about germs. Encouraging the reluctant hand-washer is the first line of defence against all the nasties that are likely to come home during the first year of school. However, it can be challenging to get across the fact that just because germs can’t be seen doesn’t mean they aren’t there! Germs can be a very abstract concept for children to understand. A visual way to get the idea across is to put glitter on your child’s hands and then get them to wash them with just water and after that with water and soap. It’s a great introduction to a discussion about what constitutes effective hand-washing. You can also put some glitter on your hand and then touch your child to show how germs are spread. This provides an opportunity to talk to your child about when they should wash their hands, such as before meals, after visiting the toilet and after blowing their nose. You can also remind them to sneeze into their elbow or a tissue and throw away tissues after using them.

What to share, and what not to share!
Head lice! Standing in front of the head lice products you can introduce the topic of what to share and what not to share. The first step in getting rid of head lice is to avoid catching them in the first place. Lice are most common in primary school students as they often put their heads together when playing or working together in groups (or playing on iPads and taking selfies!) Lice crawl along hair strands from one head to another, so if your daughter has long hair encourage her to tie it up. While lice don’t survive long off the hair, it’s probably a good idea to discourage sharing of hats and hair accessories. There are also defence lice sprays which can be sprayed on hair or hats as a preventative. If you do have any unwelcome visitors your pharmacist can advise you about the best product for your needs.

What does it mean to have an allergy?
What you can and can’t share at school is also a good question to start a discussion about food sharing and food allergies. Even if your child doesn’t have any allergies they are likely to have children in their class with food allergies and may not understand what this means or how something like food can make their friend sick.

For parents of children who do have allergies, before starting school you may have managed your child’s allergy ‘behind-the-scenes’, however as your child becomes more independent it is essential that you help them understand what this means and how to keep safe. One of the things to discuss with them is the concept of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ foods. You can also show them what they look like and the packaging they might come in. Another conversation starter could be ‘who should they accept food from?’ They should only accept food from a trusted adult familiar with their allergy. Ask them what they should do if they feel sick and explain their action plan to them in an age-appropriate way. Your pharmacist can advise them on emergency protocols and show them how an EpiPen is administered. They may even have a training device for them to practice with. You can also help them to learn how to explain their allergy to another child or adult.

Other common allergens that may be encountered on the playground or classroom include grass, mould, dust mites, pollen, bees and other insect stings. If your child has an allergy to any of these, speak to them about how they can avoid them. Help them to understand their action plan and how to access help if they feel any of the common symptoms such as hives, itchy and watery eyes, runny nose, nausea or vomiting. Often children can be settled with oral non-drowsy antihistamines, however in serious cases, if your child has an allergic reaction further investigation is required.

How do they take their medication at school?
If your child needs to carry or take medication for anaphylaxis, diabetes, epilepsy or asthma it’s important that they understand the basics of their condition. They need to know what medication they are taking and when; where and how it is stored; and how it is administered. The ‘February Epidemic’, is a documented phenomenon where there is a big spike in children hospitalised due to asthma immediately after school goes back[1]. Over 90 percent of people with asthma don’t use their inhaler the correct way, so when you are replacing out-of-date inhalers, ask your pharmacist to check your child’s technique and the use of their spacer. It’s just one of the services your pharmacy provides.

While it’s important that we educate our children about hygiene and health for their own wellbeing and safety, we don’t want to scare them or turn them into germophobes. Take a relaxed approach by using a routine trip to your local pharmacy as an opportunity to start a conversation. It’s a great way to model behaviour, answer questions and begin the process of them learning about managing their health.

Also remember, that if you are unsure about whether to send your sick child to school or not, this handy checklist and your community pharmacist can be a great source of advice.