Nursery illnesses

When your child reaches the age where he'll go to pre-school or nursery, he’ll be exposed to a host of bugs and illnesses. What are the symptoms and how do you treat them?



What is it?

This virus is highly contagious, but once you’ve had it, you usually don’t get it again. Your child has a high temperature first, then possibly a blotchy rash, fading after a couple of days to be replaced by red, fluid-filled blisters. These scab over in five to seven days, then disappear. Your child may feel unwell, or seem fine except for itching – each child’s different.


How to treat chickenpox

Bicarbonate of soda in a lukewarm bath eases itching, or dab calamine lotion on the spots. Discourage scratching to avoid scarring.

“My children got chickenpox after each other,” says Andrea, 38, mum to Ellie, 4, and Maisie, 2.

For more on this virus, head to our article on chickenpox and your baby. Our guides to your baby’s rashes and spots and your toddler’s rashes and spots may also help if you’re wondering if your child has chickenpox.


What is it?

The conjunctiva, a membrane that lines the white of the eye, becomes pink and inflamed due to infection, allergy or irritation. Bacterial conjunctivitis is very infectious. Your child’s eye is likely to be sticky with a discharge, and even ‘glued’ shut when he wakes.

How to treat conjunctivitis

Use drops from the pharmacist or with a prescription. Your child should have his own towel and flannel to avoid passing the infection. To ‘unglue’ your child’s eyes, wipe them with a piece of cotton wool soaked in cooled, boiled water.

“The drops aren’t easy to get into a wriggly toddler’s eyes, but we’re dab hands at it now,” says Emma, 32, mum to Rachel, 2, and Isabel, 1.

Hand, foot and mouth

What is it?

This virus causes blisters on your child’s palms, soles of his feet and inside his mouth after, prehaps, a sore throat, high temperature and runny nose. The blisters will be itchy and sore. The disease is infectious from when he first comes down with it until the blisters dry up.

How to treat hand, foot and mouth

Don’t burst blisters or the disease will spread. Cover them with gauze dressings to dry. Wash your hands each time you touch them or change a dirty nappy. Sores in his mouth may make it hard to eat and drink – offer food he can easily swallow.

“Hand, foot and mouth has been our worst nursery bug so far, as the pain in Ella’s mouth meant she wouldn’t eat,” says Amy, 39, mum to Ella, 2.

Head lice

What are they?

Little bugs that live near the scalp, and lay eggs (‘nits’) on the hair. They pass from head to head, especially in young nursery children in close contact.

How to treat head lice

You can buy lotions and shampoos to kill the lice, but you’ll need to remove the eggs, too, otherwise a new batch will hatch. The non-chemical method is to regularly comb the nits out of wet hair with a fine-toothed comb.

“We had head lice for about a year on and off, but I persevered with combing and avoided using insecticide,” says Natalie, 31, mum to Jacob, 6, and Oliver, 3.

Our guide to head lice and nits has more advice on how to spot and get rid of these little pests. We’ve also busted common head lice myths.


What is it?

This contagious skin infection is caused by common bacteria (staphylococcal or streptococcal) that are carried on people’s skin. Infection occurs when the bacteria get into the skin and multiply – often through a small scratch.

Impetigo causes a blistering, red, crusting rash, which occurs in small patches. Red spots enlarge until they become fluid-filled blisters, and when they burst, new sores develop, making the problem worse.

How to treat impetigo

Impetigo can be treated with antibiotic creams or oral antibiotics. To discourage impetigo from spreading, try not to touch the rash and wash your hands if you do. Don’t share towels, and wash all towels and bedding at high temperatures.

Sickness and diarrhoea

What are they?

Tummy bugs are fairly common illnesses in nursery children. Sometimes accompanied by vomiting – one particularly unpleasant bug is ‘winter vomiting disease’, officially called Norovirus.

How to treat sickness and diarrhoea

Most tummy bugs don’t need treatment. Give lots of drinks to avoid dehydration; don’t worry about food until your child is ready for it. Wash hands regularly to avoid passing it on.

“Sickness in little ones can be scary. I’ve learnt not to worry about food until he’s ready, maybe days after he’s stopped being sick,” says Lee, 34, dad to Marcus, 2.

For more info, see our guides on norovirus and sickness in toddlers and norovirus and sickness in babies.


What are they?

Living in the intestines, they crawl to your child’s bottom to lay eggs, causing itchiness – so your child scratches, gets eggs under his fingernails, and they get in his mouth. The cycle starts again. Look out for your child scratching his bottom; check his poo, pants and bedding – worms look like tiny bits of white thread.

How to treat threadworms

Tablets from the pharmacist kill worms and eggs. Treat all the family, and inform the nursery. Wash all towels and bedding at a minimum of 60°C.

To prevent re-infection from threadworms:

  • Wash hands before meals and after going to the toilet
  • Trim nails and avoid nail biting
  • Shower every morning to wash away eggs laid at night
  • Give each member of the family their own towel

“I couldn’t see worms in his poo, but close inspection of Isaac’s bottom revealed a couple. He’d been low for a while – I think the itching made it hard for him to sleep,” says Penny, 37, mum to Isaac, 4.

When can your child go to nursery?

Each nursery has its own rules about whether your child can come to nursery, and when, so you will need to check before your child returns. However, these are some of the most common as a general guide:

  • Chickenpox: Stay away until all spots have scabbed over.
  • Conjunctivitis: Wait till you’ve used drops for a few days and there’s no discharge.
  • Hand, foot and mouth: Stay away for the first few days of the illness. Some nurseries may ask you not to return until the blisters have healed.
  • Head lice: Can attend once treated with a head lice lotion or shampoo, or if you’re combing hair regularly with a nit comb.
  • Impetigo: Stay away until the rash clears, which happens quicker if it’s treated.
  • Sickness and diarrhoea: Stay at home until 48 hours after symptoms disappear.
  • Threadworms: Can attend nursery.

Mum’s story

“Oliver falls ill each time he starts a new nursery”

“Oliver is now at his third nursery in 18 months as I’ve changed jobs twice. With each change, he’s exposed to new germs. Each time he’s ended up with coughs or sore throats, a fever, or tummy upsets. He’s also come across chickenpox, scarlet fever and hand, foot and mouth, but caught none of them.”


Kymberley, 32, mum to Oliver, 2

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