Classrooms are the perfect breeding ground for bugs. Susan Young looks at the problem and how you can protect yourself
Are you bright, bouncy and full of the joys of almost-spring? Or shivering and sneezing with yet another virus?
Scientists have confirmed what teachers have always known: that classrooms are the perfect breeding ground for bugs. And at this time of year that gives you three main things to worry about: flu, colds, and the winter vomiting bug, norovirus.
"Teachers are probably in the highest-risk category for infection. I can't think of any higher risk category than a junior school teacher," says Professor Ron Eccles of the Common Cold Centre in Cardiff. What's more, schools are actually an epicentre for infections, and now is about as bad as it gets. "It's quite right to focus on schools being an 'exchange and mart' for viruses. There are two peaks of infection: in September and January, which coincide with the return to school and colleges," says Professor Eccles.
At the root of the problem is - you guessed it - children. Immature immune systems mean they get many more infections than adults - seven to 10 colds a year, compared with an adult's two to five. They are in close physical contact. And - the clinching factor - their personal hygiene can be somewhat lacking.
"Think about how viruses move; they are not like little spaceships," says Professor Eccles. "Whenever you get a cold you have to think: someone's snot has got up my nose. And it's fascinating to think how it got up there.
Someone coughing and sneezing nearby would work - droplets can tra-vel one to two metres."
Alternatively, the droplets land on communal surfaces such as tables, door handles, books and exam papers, where they can live for up to 12 hours.
To complete the cycle of infection, the virus is picked up on your own fingers, and absent-mindedly transfered to your nose or eyes. We all touch our faces many times a day without realising. Too much detail? Well, maybe, you can help protect yourself and your pupils from some of the common bugs.
Simple measures to thwart infection could save lives if the threatened bird flu pandemic happens.
A box of tissues for pupils to catch sneezes and coughs is a good start - but make sure that the used ones go in the bin.
And good old-fashioned handwashing is now the first line of defence against most infections, with a Gover-nment poster being sent out to doctors'
surgeries. In Essex, 300 primaries have completed a pilot project with the Health Protection Agency (HPA), promoting handwashing through easy-to-use curriculum materials.
"The idea is that if you can catch children early enough you can instil long-term patterns of handwashing," says Viv Cleary of the HPA, who is evaluating the project. "When we get an outbreak in schools we tell them to be vigilant about handwashing, and then we get people telling us that they do not have paper towels, or normally just have bar soap."
Viv says early indications are that the materials have worked well, and further pilots will follow. She would like teachers to get more information on how to cut down on infection in the classroom and is writing a handbook in conjunction with the Infection Control Nurses' Association.
Teachers can be aware of three things, she says: hand hygiene, cleaning and exclusion. "Handwashing can prevent the spread of diarrhoea, vomiting, flu and colds," she says, suggesting breaktimes as the obvious moments.
Teachers can also monitor school cleanliness and complain if toilets are dirty or lacking soap or paper towels. Exclusion means ensuring that infectious children stay away. Outbreaks - two or more linked cases of serious or unusual bugs - should be reported to the HPA locally.
Teachers should also ensure their jabs are up-to-date, and cover any cuts and scratches with plasters, says Viv.
Sometimes it can be impossible to avoid catching a winter bug, particularly norovirus, which, with Flu B, shut many schools last winter.
"Norovirus is one of the few things where the bugs can be in airborne vomit, or transmitted via the faecaloral route. Plus, the virus can survive on surfaces for a few hours. You can see how easy it is to spread,"
Professor Eccles has more advice on warding off colds - and again, your mother would have approved. For instance: keep your nose and feet warm when it's chilly, which could mean thick socks and a scarf on playground duty.
"One reason we get more colds in winter is that it's colder then and it lowers our defences," he says. The first line of defence in the nose works more slowly in lower temperatures, while research done by Professor Eccles found students forced to steep their feet in buckets of chilled water developed far more colds than a control group. And it is also true that stress lowers resistance.
All this is worth doing, even as protection against minor bugs such as colds. While pupils will eventually improve their immunity by catching enough of them, it can cause educational and other problems if they are bombarded by them all at once.
And new viral strains can also cause problems for susceptible teachers, although many seem to have superhuman resistance to every bug going.
"It's true that some teachers are very healthy, but here is an element of self-selection," says Professor Eccles. "Some people have to leave teaching because they get so many infections it causes little polyps on their vocal cords."
KNOW YOUR ENEMY
There are more than 200 viruses, which can live outside the body for hours.
Pupils get seven to 10 colds a year, adults two to five.
Peak points are September and January. Symptoms include runny nose, sore throat, cough and fever.
Flu A and B are the most common. Symptoms develop fast and include high temperature, aches and pains, loss of appetite, nausea and cough.
Recovery should start within a week, although a cough and general tiredness may last for a further two.
Flu spreads through coughs, sneezes, or contaminated hands.
Sufferers are infectious from the day before symptoms start for at least five days.
Flu B is less common and generally milder. It is likelier to affect children.
Also known as winter vomiting disease, first identified at an American school in 1972.
It thrives in closed communities such as schools and cruise ships.
Last winter's outbreak closed many schools.
It is highly contagious and sufferers should be incubated for 24 to 48 hours and are infectious for 48 hours after their symptoms cease.
Symptoms include fever, nausea, vomiting, watery diarrhoea and abdominal cramps.
Wash your hands properly whenever you can and make pupils do the same.
Keep a box of tissues in the classroom. Teach pupils to sneeze and cough into them, then bin the used tissue.
Make sure your own immunisations are up-to-date, particularly of childhood diseases, especially rubella if you are female and could get pregnant.
Wet, soap (liquid), wash (including front and back of hands, and between fingers), rinse, and dry properly with paper towels.
It is strange but true thathandwashing should take you long enough to sing happy birthday twice.
A COLD SPELL
Professor Eccles suggests you try the following if you get a cold:
* Echinacea, but make sure you get the best quality possible.
* Vicks First Defence. This has only tested by the manufacturer so far.
* A high dose of vitamin c, which means 2g or more.
* Garlic: it has antiviral properties.
* Hot curry: antivirals in the garlic and spices, plus the heat promotes mucus flow, so helping to get rid of the bugs.
* Hot baths, saunas and Turkish baths: all good, but the last two are useful as they can warm the nose, making it more difficult for viruses to replicate.