Respiratory Illnesses and Schools

Each year, millions of people become ill due to respiratory illnesses. Some of the more common respiratory illnesses in schools may include influenza, pertussis, and the common cold.  Varicella (or chickenpox) does not cause a respiratory illness but it does infect individuals by entering through the respiratory tract and conjunctiva.  Schools should be aware of these illnesses, how to prevent them, and what to report.


  • Influenza is a viral illness characterized by a fever with a cough and/or sore throat. Everyone is at risk for influenza, but certain individuals are at higher risk of serious complications.
  • Pertussis is a bacterial illness characterized by coughing fits and paroxysms which may lead to vomiting or gagging.
  • Common colds can be caused by many different disease agents, but are usually characterized by cough, runny nose, sneezing, and sore throat.
  • Varicella is a viral illness that causes a blister-like rash, itching, tiredness, and fever. It is spread in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also be spread by touching or breathing in the virus particles that come from the blisters.

What schools can do:

  • Promote vaccination among students and staff. Influenza, pertussis, and varicella are all vaccine preventable diseases, and high vaccination rates can reduce transmission within schools. Ensure vaccine records are complete and up to date.
  • Stay home if you are sick. This applies to both students and staff.
    • Influenza – individuals should stay home until 24 hours after fever resolves without the use of fever reducing medications.
    • Pertussis – individuals should stay home until they have competed 5 days of antibiotics.
    • Colds – there is no standardized recommendation for returning during/after a cold. Individuals with colds are typically infectious for 4-7 days after symptoms begin.
    • Varicella – individuals should stay home until all their blisters scab over.
  • Promote good respiratory hygiene. Encourage students and staff to cough into their sleeve, or tissues rather than hands. Dispose of used tissues in wastebaskets. Frequently wash hands with soap and water.
  • Increase environmental cleaning. Frequently clean high touch surfaces, like door knobs, desks, and light switches.

What to report:

  • Outbreaks – All outbreaks are reportable in Maine. In a school, an outbreak is defined as ≥15% absenteeism when the majority of individuals out are due to illness. Outbreaks should be reported through NEO.
  • For NEO dashboard absenteeism reporting form guidance
  • Pertussis and Varicella should be reported to Maine CDC at 1-800-821-5821, an outbreak will be considered for these two diseases when there are three or more cases within a facility.

For more information:

  • Disease consultation and reporting line: 1-800-821-5821