Researchers Say School Makes Some Kids Sick

By M. Renee Edwards

There is an increased incidence of “sick school syndrome” sweeping across the country  What is it?  It is a cycle wherein your child is too sick to go to school on schooldays, yet well enough to want to play outside on the weekends.  Okay, you say, that is probably just because the kid doesn’t want to go to school.  But, according to some researchers, sick school syndrome may be a new phenomenon but it is an issue nonetheless. 

“We are witnessing and will continue to see an increasing risk of illness caused by schools with a range of environmental problems,” Michael Shannon, MD, MPH and director of the Pediatric Environmental Health Center at Children’s Hospital in Boston said.  The symptoms of sick school syndrome, according to Shannon, may mimic other illnesses like asthma and allergies, and often include wheezing, red eyes, cough and congestion.

“These symptoms may often be very non-specific and are often dismissed by parents, school nurses, pediatricians, and school superintendents,” Shannon said.  “Parents should be attentive if their child seems to be complaining of illness that consistently occurs while they are at school.  If a noticeable pattern is detected, the parent should contact their pediatrician to have the child examined,” he added.

If other health problems have been eliminated, the child’s pediatrician can contact the school to see if there are any potential explanations for the illness, such as painting, cleaning, recent construction or other changes in the environment of the school building.  In addition, the pediatrician can obtain a copy of the school’s latest air quality report and/or make a request that an environmental inspection be done.

“We are witnessing and will continue to see an increasing risk of illness caused by schools with a range of environmental problems,”

Michael Shannon, MD, MPH

The most common environmental problems linked to sick school syndrome are pet dander brought in by students, heating and ventilation unit problems, molds, use of pesticides on school grounds, and improper use of cleaners or chemical solvents.  It is a mistake, Shannon says, to think that sick school syndrome only affects older schools, because many new schools have issues as well, such as the types of materials used in their construction and being located close to contaminated land sites.

Not everyone responds the same way to any irritant, and that holds true with sick school syndrome.  Some students, such as kids who have allergies or asthma, may be more sensitive to potential irritants and their school environment, according to Shannon. 

Armed with the diagnosis of sick school syndrome, your child’s pediatrician may be able to treat your child’s symptoms more effectively, and can, if necessary, make a recommendation to the school that the irritant be eliminated. 

Shannon says that only as a last resort should your doctor recommend changing your child’s school.  So, don’t pull your child out of school if he or she has come home with a runny nose at least once each week for the last month.  Get it checked out, then make changes accordingly.

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