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Scary Diseases to Avoid This Fall

Child blowing her nose

It's that time of year when you can find plenty of scary creatures roaming the streets, from ghosts and ghouls to witches and zombies. But there are also things lurking in the places where children learn and play that can be even scarier. Protect you and your kids from the germs, bacteria, and viruses that cause some pretty frightening illnesses.

Pink Eye/Conjunctivitis

Most people are aware of pink eye and know it by its telltale symptom of redness in the part of the eye that is normally white. There are actually two different types of pink eye that your child might contract: viral and bacterial.

Viral pink eye often accompanies colds or other viruses and is simply a manifestation of the virus, whereas bacterial pink eye is an infection and should be treated with antibiotics (in the form of eye drops for about a week).

"In both the viral and the bacterial pink eye, children usually wake up with their eyes crusted shut," said Nathan Bexfield, MD, a pediatrician at the University of Utah's South Jordan Health Center. That's enough for most parents to get worried and call the doctor, but there is no treatment for the viral conditions since antibiotics will not work.

The easiest way to tell which type of pink eye your child has, says Dr. Bexfield, is to pay attention to whether or not they have yellowish-green drainage or discharge from the eye(s) while they are awake. With viral pink eye, you can wipe away the morning crust and it won't return during the day. If you wipe it away and the discharge returns shortly thereafter, it's probably a bacterial infection.


Another creepy, crawly creature that might frighten you is a louse—commonly known by its plural term, lice—and the main symptom is an itchy head. Contrary to popular belief, though, lice are actually not very contagious.

"Lice are really only scary because people have made them scary," said Dr. Bexfield. "Lice don't jump, so you have to have pretty significant, prolonged contact with a child who has lice in order to get it."

If one of your children gets lice, though, it's important to treat it right away. Household contact is the easiest way to spread lice, so sharing a pillow, wearing the same hats, or sharing a sweatshirt could allow the bugs to spread among family members or friends.

When parents notice an increase in head scratching, they can check for lice or eggs in the child's hair visually. Treatment includes specialized shampoos that are available at your local pharmacy, followed by visual examinations for about a week to make sure the lice are dead. Fabrics or clothing should be washed in hot water and dried on a hot setting, and anything that cannot be washed or dried should be sealed inside an airtight plastic bag for two weeks to kill the lice.


Warts have also gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years, and myths about contracting warts if you touch a wart (not true, says Dr. Bexfield) perpetuate those fears.

This condition, like pink eye, is a manifestation of a virus, and the symptoms (warts) will eventually go away without treatment. If the warts are in a place that is irritating or noticeable, though, your child may want them removed.

In those situations, you can talk to a pediatrician about freezing the warts or using a solution that chemically "burns" them off, both of which are generally more effective than at-home remedies.

Fifth Disease / Slapped Cheek Syndrome

Most people who get fifth disease (also called slapped cheek syndrome or erythema infectiosum) have minimal symptoms and might mistake it for a mild cold or flu with a cough, fever, headache, sore throat and upset stomach. It's common in children, but adults can get it too, and it can be particularly harmful to pregnant women if the unborn baby contracts the virus.

The first symptom of fifth disease is often a rash on your child's upper cheek that is bright red like they were slapped. The rash spreads to the chest, back, arms, and legs in a lace-like pattern and can come and go as the child is getting over the disease.

A pediatrician can usually diagnose the disease with a visual exam and description of the symptoms, though in some cases, a blood test may be necessary, especially for pregnant women who have been around someone with fifth disease.

The virus is not harmful to most patients and most children will get better without treatment, but it can be more serious—and scarier—for children who have immune or blood disorders, or for someone whose symptoms persist for more than a month. Consult a doctor in either of those situations. Since it's a virus, antibiotics won't work for treatment, but a doctor or nurse may recommend over-the-counter medications to alleviate symptoms such as joint pain or itching.


This highly contagious skin infection can be pretty scary to look at, with sores and bumps on the skin around the face and mouth that turn into blisters, burst and scab over with a yellow or brown crust. It mainly affects children and infants.

Most of the time a doctor can diagnose impetigo with a simple visual diagnosis. Treatment varies depending on the severity of the infection and can range from antibiotic creams or ointments for topical use to antibiotic pills. The disease remains contagious for 24 to 48 hours after a child begins taking antibiotics, or until the sores are gone if the child is not taking antibiotics.

While these diseases seem scary, remember that the easiest way to prevent most of them is to wash yours and your child's hands regularly with soap and warm water, use alcohol-based hand rubs, and clean the surfaces in your home, classrooms and play areas regularly.