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Getting sick in college: How to teach your child to cope on their own

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During my daughter’s first year of college, she mentioned during a phone call she was feeling crummy and couldn’t understand why she felt so run down after getting over a cold. I’d just experienced my own bacterial sinus infection, and my high-schooler had just had strep throat. So I suggested that my college girl visit her student health clinic. Turns out she had a nasty bacterial infection that required antibiotics.

First-year students get sick in college. Mostly, they get frequent viral infections that don’t require prescription medication, says David McBride, a medical doctor and director of University of Maryland’s Health Center. Remember when your child started preschool and brought home every cold? It’s like that, except this time they have to manage it alone.

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New college students get sick for a host of reasons, but the primary one is living in close quarters with many other people, McBride says. All those dorm doorknobs, stair rails, and bathroom faucets are being touched by hundreds of hands. Students also love to share drinks, says Elke Zschaebitz, nurse practitioner at the University of Virginia’s student health center. She sees a case of mononucleosis every week during the academic year, and when the flu goes around, it whips through dorms. (Indeed. My daughter and two of her friends went down with an intestinal flu within half an hour of each other.)

The transition to college and all it entails — ramped-up academics, new social scene, different food, sharing a small room — is all new and stressful even if it’s exciting, and stress does a number on the immune system. Add in staying up late too often, subsisting on carbohydrates, not exercising regularly, and alcohol, and you’ve got a recipe for illness.

While students won’t be able to avoid illness entirely, they can take steps to minimize getting sick so often, but there’s a learning curve. Here’s what experts recommend you share with your new college kids:

Wash your hands and avoid sharing. Frequently. With soap or sanitizer. Don’t share cups and glasses, utensils, and kisses with a sick or random person.

Get your sleep. Chronic lack of sleep impairs the immune system and ranks as a huge risk factor, right behind close-quarters living. “When you don’t get restful sleep, your body doesn’t rejuvenate and your brain doesn’t defrag,” Zschaebitz says. It only takes two or three days of compromised sleep to start feeling run down. New students don’t get their sleep for any number of reasons, from feeling anxious about an exam to adjusting to a snoring roommate or a hot room, missing home, or enduring loud students in the hallway. They also struggle with time management and put off studying until the wee hours, and they stay up all night on weekends to socialize — often starting on Thursday, Zschaebitz says. Figuring out sleep isn’t easy, but they need to.

Melatonin isn’t the only answer when your older child can’t sleep

Eat a balanced diet. That means incorporating fruits and vegetables. Many campuses’ cafeteria choices have improved since we were in college, but that doesn’t mean your student is choosing well. Dining on dessert and pizza without your mom reminding you to eat an apple is just plain fun. But getting too much sugar and not enough fresh food or adequate water affects how you feel, Zschaebitz says. Poor diet, too many energy drinks, and limited sleep will lead to feeling bad even without being sick. Students might try an app like HabitBull to kick-start healthier choices.

Manage stress. Not all stress is bad, and some is even good for us, but chronic stress has a negative impact on our immune systems, McBride says. Connecting with like-minded people is crucial to thriving and maintaining positive mental health in college. Socializing without alcohol or other substances is also key. Join a club or intramural sport or watch a comedy together. Staying organized to keep caught up on schoolwork lessens stress as well. Get outside, exercise, and unplug a couple times a week if you can, Zschaebitz says.

Get up-to-date on immunizations. Vaccine-preventable outbreaks of diseases occur on college campuses and can move as quickly as those flu bugs. Many colleges require immunizations against measles, mumps, and rubella as well as Meningitis ACWY. McBride recommends students also have vaccines against tetanus/diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough), along with varicella (chickenpox) — if they didn’t contract them as a child. Not all international students are vaccinated for the same diseases as American students, and immunity “breakthroughs” can occur, Zschaebitz says, because vaccines aren’t 100 percent effective. However, getting vaccinated is still the best protection.

Get a flu shot. My daughter hates shots, but after her first year, she agreed to get a flu shot. It won’t necessarily protect against all strains — and every year is different — but it can help. “There is literature suggesting that college students who are immunized against flu miss fewer days of school than those who don’t,” McBride says.

Be aware of regional environments. Even if your child has never had allergies or asthma, it’s possible to develop them in a new region’s environment. “People can develop a dry hacky cough from mold, dust, or different pollens by moving to a region very different from their own,” Zschaebitz says. The student health clinic will help students diagnose a persistent cough or other health effect from a change in environment. Encourage your teen to visit the clinic if they complain about a new chronic condition.

Slow down when sickness hits. Most students don’t know how to care for themselves when they do get sick, and, according to McBride, they can get freaked out the first few times. The student health center is ready to provide reassurance and advice even for garden-variety colds.

For colds, sleep is the most important cure-all, as is hydrating with plenty of fluids like tea, fruit juice, and soup. Students shouldn’t power or party through it (alcohol hurts immunity too). Have a friend pick up a sick tray if available, as Oberlin College offers. Over-the-counter medications can treat uncomfortable symptoms, but they won’t likely speed recovery. Create a simple cold kit in advance with a decongestant like Sudafed 12-hour, Mucinex (plain dosage) for coughs, Tylenol, and Ibuprofen. Honey can also be an effective cough suppressant. Avoid multi-symptom meds as they may offer more than needed.

For other symptoms, such as persistent fever or very sore throat, students should head to the student health center, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

The urge to swoop in and nurse your student back to health is overwhelming, but part of college is learning how to manage their own health. You can always remind your child to call home any time for tips. Sometimes all they need is some comforting words and guidance from those who know them best to make them feel a bit better.

Joanna Nesbit writes about education, parenting and family travel. Find her work at or follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit.

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