08/26/2012 11:27 EDT | Updated 10/26/2012 05:12 EDT

Back to School? Back to Germs

Nora McGee

It's that time of year again. Millions of children and young adults across the globe are getting ready to head back to school in the hopes of gaining an education not only from the curricula but also from the interpersonal contact that comes with being a part of an intensified populace. Students from different areas, cultures and behaviours will congregate in a single location to share their stories of their summer escapades, find similar or new groups -- or cliques -- to join and develop new skills that will take them into a hopefully bright future.

Students will also gain over their academic years an excellent education on germs.

From the moment they enter daycare to the celebrations of high school graduation, kids inevitably come into contact with these unseen entities and many will get sick. But while there may be endless concerns for health, there is a positive in that these moments of unhappiness will end up benefiting their lives as much as if not more than the pains of homework.

The first place of education is usually the daycare or kindergarten class. Children are just starting to develop their immune systems and will fall victim to any number of germs that cause recurrent infections ranging from diarrhea and vomiting to coughs and colds to eye and ear infections. The bacteria and viruses associated with these symptoms are extremely contagious and many have the ability to stick around in the environment. There is no germiest place in the classroom as everything from toys to desks to water fountains is rife with bacteria and viruses. While the plight over these few years may seem endless, it is paramount to prevent even worse infections later in life.

As kids grow, they'll find themselves in elementary school. The classroom changes as does the dynamics of interaction with germs. The immune system is still learning but by now has developed a comfortable base through a combination of exposure and vaccination such that only a few infections are truly problematic.

The risk continues thanks to a new set of highly touched germy surfaces including pencils and their sharpeners, computers and the sporting equipment used in gym class. Also, the washroom is a factor for disease spread although it is minimal in risk compared to the licking of a germy pencil. The levels of gastrointestinal disease and colds will continue and new infections such as impetigo and chickenpox may occur. Elementary schools are also known for the spread of meningitis although the infection, while quite severe, is rare and with a vaccine available, should continue to disappear as a concern.

When the child becomes a young adult in high school, the immune system is fairly robust and can handle most challenges from infectious disease. However, there are new worries as the population increases and the level of interaction between students themselves grows. The hub for almost any large school is the cafeteria and by consequence is one of the germiest places around. A diverse display of gastronomy may lead to the ingestion of unknown or contaminated food and there is continually a lack of proper cleaning of tabletops and chairs allowing germs to reside and spread.

In the event that something does not agree with the body, the student will inevitably have to use the bathroom and proper hygiene will be required. Assuming that it is questionable; anything subsequently touched could pose a problem. Door handles can be a significant source of germs as well as anything that might be regularly handled such as a computer keyboard, mouse, cellphone or tablet. Overall however, infections will be less common and those that happen will generally be less severe.

By the end of secondary school, the immune system is ready for the world thanks in part to the sick days, the tummy rumbles, the occasional skin rash and the frazzled nerves of the parental units. The body can enter the real world of post-secondary education, work, or volunteer vocation knowing that it has done its "schoolwork" and face the infection challenges ahead. While illness will continue to be a factor in life, the germy education will help to ensure that these moments of sickness will be few and far between.

Before this scholastic germ lesson comes to an end, there is one last germ-ridden place present in every school environment that must be shared. It is well known throughout the ages of history for being a cause of disease spread although few have actually paid it much attention.

The human body is the germiest of all places in a school.

(or anywhere for that matter...)

Most surfaces may carry hundreds of thousands of germs but that is nothing compared to the trillions that lives on and in the body. The majority are native to the body and could be considered harmless but they may still cause infection if transferred to another. This is especially the case in people who are carriers of an illness or do not show symptoms because the immune system has everything under control. In a number of outbreaks worldwide, the person who started the outbreak didn't even know they were infected at the time. Handwashing, regular cleaning and the use of sanitizers and wipes are paramount to preventing unneeded infection spread in the school.

Mind you, that's something we all should know by heart.