Things like strep throat, pink eye, and earaches may seem wholly reserved for summer camp and elementary school classrooms. But the truth of the matter is, it's still possible to catch these
childhood illnesses as an adult. Germs are germs, after all, so you may not be immune simply because you're older.
"Some illnesses are more associated with children because their immune systems are not as developed, [or they have not completed their vaccine series],"
Dr. Monique May, a board-certified family physician with over 20 years of experience, tells Bustle. "Also, they are often exposed to other illnesses by being around other children in school, camp, sports teams, etc, which increases the risk for them to catch a contagious disease."
As adults, we may have developed more defenses against these viruses and bacteria, which means
the immune system is better able to fight them off. We also know all about the importance of washing our hands and covering coughs and sneezes, which little kids may not be the best at.
And yet, even with our stronger immune systems and awareness of dirt and germs, it's still possible to catch a "childhood" illness. Read on below for a few things experts say you can still get as an adult, as well as how to lower your risk.
Pink eye, or
conjunctivitis, sounds like something you'd catch in second grade. But adults can easily get it, too. "Pink eye is very contagious because it is spread by touching a surface, such as a towel or tissue, after an infected child has rubbed their eyes," Sarah Lonsway, RN, BSN, a registered nurse and vaccine clinic coordinator at Northwestern Medicine Delnor Hospital, tells Bustle.
It's really easy for folks who spend a lot of time around kids to pick up. But you can also get pink eye by using dirty contact lenses, if an allergen gets in your eye, or if you simply come in
contact with the bacteria or virus, according to Mayo Clinic. As Lonsway says, "good hand-washing and avoiding rubbing the eyes are ways to prevent it."
Pertussis, more commonly known as
whooping cough, "is a very contagious bacterial infection characterized by prolonged coughing fits that can last as long as three months," Lonsway says. It's fairly common among kids since it's spread by coughing and sneezing into the air — things that the youth are more likely to do.
But adults can get whooping cough, too. Symptoms include a runny nose, stuffy nose, watery eyes, and fever, May says, as well as a persistent cough that can lead to vomiting, whooping cough can cause severe tiredness, and often ends with a "whoop" sound when the next breath is taken. Hence the name.
How many times did you miss school as a kid due to a sore throat? Or worse,
strep throat? This painful illness is caused by a bacterial infection of the tonsils, Lonsway says, which can lead to a very sore throat, swollen glands in the neck, and fever.
"This is more common in children," she says, "but affects adults as well. A doctor visit and strep test is needed to diagnose, and if positive, antibiotics clear the infection."
Because unlike a sore throat, which can happen if you have a head cold,
strep throat is different in that it's caused by a bacterial infection. And it can lead to further complications if left untreated.
This is another one that seems like it's just for kids, but
chickenpox is something you can still catch an an adult. "Chickenpox symptoms include high fever, itchy rash, headache, loss of appetite, and general malaise," May says.
According to Mayo Clinic, the disease is usually mild in healthy kids. If you had it when you were little, you probably only remember a few days of itchiness, and getting to stay home from school to watch TV.
If you had it way back when, you can get it again as an adult, but in a different form. As May says, "Later in life it can [reactivate] and cause a painful rash in adults known as
shingles." This leads to blisters and pain, and is more likely to happen in older adults or those with a weakened immune system.
Your risk of becoming infected with chickenpox as an adult is higher if you never
had it as a kid, or if you didn't get the chickenpox vaccine, according to Mayo Clinic, which is why folks who spend a lot of time around kids — like teachers and/or parents — should make sure they're vaccinated. Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock
Stomach flu, or
viral gastroenteritis, "is a virus caused by coming in contact with an infected person or by ingesting contaminated food/water causing nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and diarrhea," Lonsway says.
It's something a lot of kids catch, again due to the germ-y environments they hang out in all day. But it's also something that can sweep through an office environment, or that you can catch from your own kids.
The best way to prevent infection is by avoiding food that may be infected. For example, you won't want to share snacks with a friend who just had stomach flu. Washing your hands frequently can also help.
You probably remember the nurse going around and checking everyone for
head lice, after yet another outbreak in your school. But (you guessed it) you can you still get lice as an adult. "Head lice symptoms include itchy scalp and rash and visible lice on the scalp," May says.
The thing is, it's not always the first conclusion doctors jump to if you go to see them with these symptoms. "In adults they may be mistaken as difficult-to-treat dandruff," May says. So if you're scratching, don't rule it out.
"Ear infections are caused by bacteria," May says. "There are two types: middle ear and outer ear infections. For middle ear infections, adults may get them after getting a head cold or having a bout of allergic rhinitis (hay fever)."
Colds and allergies can cause swelling in the nose which then affects the tubes in the ears that regular air pressure, May says. If you develop an ear infection, symptoms will include ear pain, drainage of fluid from the ear, and trouble hearing.
"Outer ear infections cause redness of the ear, pain, swelling, drainage, and decreased hearing as well," May says. When kids get an
ear infection, it's usually a little bit worse, as they also get fevers, headaches, and may have trouble sleeping. Ringworm is something that passes through contact with infected surfaces. And now that you're past your school years, you might catch it if you share clothing or towels with someone who has it, participate in a sport that requires skin-to-skin contact, or even if you wear clothing that's fitted, according to Mayo Clinic.
As May says, "It it caused by a fungus and causes round, scaly rashes on the body that itch." You can avoid it by staying away from those who have it until they're better, washing your hands often, and not sharing personal care items, such as hairbrushes.
WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock Hand-foot-and-mouth disease causes sores on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. As Lonsway says, "It is spread by droplets [in the air] or direct contact with any bodily fluids. This is common among children, who once infected, can spread the virus for up to six weeks."
Usually, it isn't a big deal. "The pain from the mouth sores can be bothersome when eating, but usually better within a week," Lonsway says. To prevent it, washing your hands will be key, as well as staying away from infected people.
These illnesses may be associated with childhood, because they're things that can spread through classrooms, and in those will still-developing immune systems. But they can impact you as an adult, too.
If you don't feel well,
let a doctor know. While most of these conditions can clear up on their own, some of them — like head lice and strep throat — will require treatment.