Dear Incoming College Freshmen,
As you begin the next step in life, you are probably both excited and nervous, thinking about your classes, dorm setup, meal plans and making new friends. But there are some health-related issues you should be thinking about, too. As family medicine physicians who have treated hundreds of college students, we have 10 tips we’d like to share — essentially the things we wish every freshman would know before arriving on campus.
1. Immunization records. You cannot start the school year until the university has vetted your immunization history. But do you know what that record says? Your parents may have kept track of your shots in the past, but now you need to pay attention to this important aspect of your health. Our advice is to know what your vaccination status is. Are you up-to-date, for instance, with tetanus, hepatitis A and meningitis vaccines? And keep a copy of your record handy — in your wallet is good, or keep a copy of it on your phone. If you end up in an emergency room somewhere, the doctors and nurses are not going to like hearing — and you may not like saying — “I need to call my mom and ask her.”
2. Medications. Be aware of the names and dosages of ALL the medications you take, both prescription drugs and over-the-counter ones, such as Tylenol and ibuprofen. At the very least, bring the containers with you when you go to the college health clinic the first time. “I take the little yellow pill for my ADHD” is not going to get you a refill.
3. Personal medical history. Know your medical history, such as the surgeries that you have had, whether you’ve had any concussions or broken bones and whether you have asthma or have ever been hospitalized. This will help us get a better picture of your overall health or identify areas of concern if you come to us for care.
4. Allergies. Know what you are allergic to, and what happens when you are exposed to these allergens. For example, if you are told that you had an allergy to penicillin as a child, know what the reaction was: A skin rash? Swollen lips? Difficulty breathing? This will help make sure a doctor at the student health clinic doesn’t give you the wrong medication, especially if calling mom is not an option. This applies to medications primarily but also to insect-bite and food allergies.
5. Family history. It is important to know what medical issues run in your family, because this may help identify some diseases or explain strange symptoms. A few medical problems, such as certain autoimmune and psychiatric conditions, tend to show up first during the late teens and early 20s. It’s helpful, therefore, for a doctor to know if any of those conditions run in your family. For starters, familiarize yourself with the health status of first-degree relatives: mom, dad, sister, brother. You will get extra credit for knowing the health status of your grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. It is also smart to know whether heart disease, diabetes, cancer or other conditions run in your family, although these are not typically seen in younger people.
6. Body temperature. Knowing how to take your temperature seems easy, but it’s a skill many college students lack. Saying, “I had a fever for three days,” but not knowing what it was is not going to be very helpful to the doctor who sees you at the clinic. And while we’re at it: Doctors consider a fever anything above 100.4 degrees. Having a friend feel your forehead isn’t very reliable; use a digital thermometer placed under your tongue for about 40 seconds. And don’t drink or eat anything for at least five minutes before taking your temperature.
7. STDs. Remember that talk back in middle school or high school about how sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs) are spread? Review, internalize and act on that information. Here’s a Web site that you may want to check out: www.cdc.gov/std/healthcomm/fact_sheets.htm. Take a careful look at it. Enough said.
8. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Living in a dorm, with many people using the same showers, toilets, sinks, doorknobs and glasses, will increase your chances of catching — and spreading — some nasty diseases. Soap and water work well. So too do alcohol-based sanitizing gels. Personal hygiene sometimes drops off when you first go to college and you’re so busy and there’s no one around to hector you; don’t let it.
9. Do not share personal products — toothbrushes, hair brushes, razors, towels, etc. — with others. Infections can spread this way, including Molluscum contagiosum (a common viral skin infection that can look like a cluster of little pimples or boils) or even MRSA, a potentially serious bacterial infection that could land you in the hospital.
10. Find out what health services you have access to as a college student. Know your insurance status, where the student health clinic is located and its hours of operation, where the nearest hospital emergency room is, where mental health services can be found. Also find out if there’s a 24-hour telephone service you can access for health issues and write the number down someplace easy to access. Also, find out how to access the sexual assault services on campus.
That’s it! Act on these tips and your school’s student health clinic will be very appreciative. And you will have a better college experience by staying healthy.
Seliby is a health and media fellow in the Department of Family Medicine at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine and a family physician who practices at the university’s student health center. Mishori is a professor of family medicine at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine and the director of the health and media fellowship.