By Dr. Donna O’Shea,
chief medical officer of population health, UnitedHealthcare
With the back-to-school season in full swing and COVID-19 restrictions loosening in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, the start of this academic year may feel relatively routine.
That includes a return to in-person learning and activities, including the opportunity to schedule recommended health exams that some families may have skipped since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 parents skipped preventive care visits for their children due to COVID-19.
Before schedules become packed with classes, homework, and extracurricular activities, review this back-to-school health checklist with actions to take to help give children a better chance to succeed inside and outside the classroom:
Get a comprehensive eye exam
Proper vision is crucial for success at school, both in the classroom and when playing sports. While school-based vision screenings are valuable, these exams can miss certain conditions, such as poor eye alignment, focusing issues and farsightedness. That’s why it is recommended children get their first comprehensive eye exam by age 1 and another prior to starting kindergarten. If no vision issues are detected, then it is recommended children have an exam at least once every two years. Unfortunately, an estimated 600,000 children and teens are blind or have a vision disorder, underscoring the importance of a visit to the eye doctor.
Even after receiving a comprehensive eye exam, it is important to monitor for digital eye strain. This condition can be caused by the overuse of digital devices, such as computers or smartphones, and can contribute to headaches, dry eyes and neck or shoulder pain. Some tips to help avoid digital eye strain include keeping computer screens at least 30 inches away, taking breaks every 20 minutes, or investing in screen protectors that help limit exposure to blue light. Some health plans offer discounts on these types of protectors or computers with built in blue-light filtering properties. In part due to the increased time in front of screens, nearsightedness today affects 41% of Americans – up from 25% in 1970.
Get a dental cleaning
Proper dental health can help your kids stay confident and smiling, and also benefit their overall well-being. That’s because oral health contributes to overall health, helping the body protect itself from infections, systemic inflammation, and various types of diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. While tooth decay is largely preventable, it unfortunately ranks as the most common chronic disease among children. In fact, by age 5, nearly 50% of children have at least one cavity. To help prevent that, consider scheduling a dental exam at the start of the school year and every six months after that.
In addition to routine cleanings, maintaining proper oral health at home is important year-round. That includes brushing your teeth (and tongue) for up to two minutes, after meals and before bedtime; using a soft-bristled toothbrush; rinsing for 30 seconds with a mouthwash, which may help kill bacteria and clean parts of the mouth brushing might miss; flossing daily, plus adding a water flosser; and staying hydrated to help avoid issues with dry mouth, while limiting sugary snacks and drinks.
Get a hearing test
Most schools provide hearing screenings, often every other year beginning in kindergarten or first grade. If a hearing issue is identified, such as hearing loss due to a middle ear infection, or hearing loss in a single ear, a referral for a comprehensive audiologic evaluation is generally the next step. It is important not to delay this more comprehensive testing with a health professional, as hearing loss can affect a child’s ability to develop speech, language, and social skills. Early intervention is key to identifying the most appropriate treatment as quickly as possible, which can help support the best possible outcome.
At the same time, parents should help children adopt safe listening strategies and avoid excessive exposure to loud sounds, which can contribute to hearing loss over time. In fact, nearly 50% of people between ages 12 and 35 are at risk of developing hearing loss due to environmental factors, including listening to music through personal audio devices. Strategies to consider include using ear protection (earplugs or earmuffs) when attending sporting events or music concerts; following the 60-60 rule, which means limiting the use of earbuds or headphones to no more than 60 minutes at a time and at no more than 60% of the player’s maximum volume; and investing in noise-canceling earbuds or headphones to avoid the temptation to crank up the volume to overcome background noise.
Back-to-school season is an exciting time, filled with friends and fun activities. To help make the most of this time of year, consider adding these three appointments to your family’s to-do list.