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.
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…