Deeper Look: Common College Illnesses

Deeper Look: Common College Illnesses

For many people, the college years are a well fabled time. As we are released into the world, new found independence creates many tales. Reminiscing over these times is often done over a glass of wine, with luminescent smiles on all faces. We remember that one night that someone had a little too much to drink, the professor who plagued your weekends with homework, the professor who you would talk to about those weekends Monday morning, the shy and bashful boyfriend who has now grown into your husband. Things were different then, as the twilight of childhood gave way to a glimmering dawn of adulthood. Not that you saw many of the actual dawns, of course.

Recanting yesterday with purple prose, we often leave the stories that were less royal and more mauve by the wayside. However, as that time grows further away, there is a new sun rising over the horizon: your child is going off to college. Now is the time to remember the stories of throwing up in your dorm room, or surviving a fever with green tea and ramen noodles. These are not the fond stories we tell with old friends, but a cautionary tale.

Colleges have been through an awful lot of change in the past few years, as they begin to incorporate the digital age more and more. What hasn’t changed much is the health of the average student. We recently took a brief look into college health concerns with Dorm Room Doctors: Staying Healthy Away From Home, which serves as a good introduction into many of the concepts we’ll talk about here. With this article, we’re going to take a deeper look into the possible health issues that you and your student should be aware of in the coming months.

Before we get too far into it, it’s important to note that articles are not doctors. The purpose of this article is to make you aware of issues that college students can go through, and how to prevent these issues. Should these issues come up, this article alone can’t guide you through the healing process, and your student may be at risk for issues beyond what we discuss here. If you start seeing symptoms of these issues or are concerned that your student may be at a greater risk, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.

The Biggest Concern: Is Your Child Prepared?

With that warning in mind, the biggest health concern for parents of college students should always be whether or not their students are prepared to handle these issues by themselves. The second the dorm room door closes behind you, the reins are off – or at least loosened. This should be an incredible moment in both of your lives. Watching your child live and thrive with their newfound independence is a proud moment for any parent. Unfortunately, even 18 years of preparation can skip a few things.

As we talked about briefly in Dorm Room Doctors, you should be absolutely certain that your child knows how to handle the following situations: routine checkups, minor illnesses and emergencies.

Routine checkups are, of course, very important to your health. However, they may be the least important on this list. While your student should absolutely be going to the doctor’s office routinely, they can often do this while their home for the holidays. Even these can be handled on campus though, as student can often go to the campus medical center to meet with students and alumni for consultations about their health. At home, these can be a very important lesson in the more legalistic side of health. Should your student ever need to use medical facilities away from home, they will need to know how to handle the transactions wherein. Routine checkups can be a great exercise in filling out paperwork, remembering where their medical card is, and so on. Should your student be on prescription medication for any reason, you should also talk to the people at the campus health center to ensure that they will be able to refill the medication when necessary. Make your student of where and when they need to get refills.

Minor illnesses are the most likely to come up, and often the easiest to handle. We’ll delve further into this later, but your student is often at a greater risk for illnesses like the common cold or flu at school than they are at home. Only at the top end of this spectrum will they ever need to step foot in a doctor’s office, but there are preventative measures and coping mechanisms that your student should be aware of and go through. Flu shots, for example, are often overlooked by freshman year college students.

Finally, emergencies are the least frequent but most important on the list.  You, I and everyone else hopes that your student will never be in a situation where they need to know what to do in an emergency, and it’s likely they won’t. Taking your chances with it can make a bad situation worse, though. Your student should know all of the motions to go through should they ever end up in an emergency situation, whether that’s a broken limb or a high grade fever. At the very least, your student should know the number for the local police, EMT services, and the location of the closest ERs and urgent care centers.

Common Colds and Other Illnesses

Common illnesses are even more common on college campuses for a variety of reasons, as CNN noted in 2013. College is a bit more communal than life at home. Students eat from communal trays of food in a communal area, sleep in a communal dorm and bathe in a communal shower. This can lead to germs spreading at an incredibly increased rate, as we saw during the H1N1 crisis. In 2011, the University of Kansas saw 22 students develop the flu in only 24 hours. While we can’t expect something like that to sweep the nation again soon, this does lead to an increased frequency in common illnesses, with the three biggest offenders being the common cold, influenza and strep throat. Of course, there are many more illnesses we can put in this category, but these basic principles can be applied across the board.

The common cold, as we well know, can’t be treated. Runny noses and scratchy throats are more an inevitability than anything else, and there isn’t much to be done. A student going through the common cold should keep two things in mind: coping mechanisms and developing symptoms. Everyone has their own way of dealing with the common cold, with the most effective being lots of rest and clear fluid. Water and sleep will get you through. However, while this is going on, make sure your student is watching for worsening symptoms. A self-diagnosed cold may be a warning sign of something worse.

The flu is one of these things. As a sort of extreme cold, we can often handle the flu ourselves. Only in extreme cases does it grow to be an issue. In small cases, make sure your student is equipped with ibuprofen and other medication to help break fevers and keep their breathing strong. In extreme cases, doctors and campus health centers can provide anti-viral medication to help fight it. The greatest way to treat the flu is to prevent it, so flu shots are an absolute must for a freshman.

Finally, we have strep throat, upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, meningococcal meningitis, pertussis (whooping cough), mumps, and other such diseases. These illnesses aren’t easy to diagnose, but they are fairly easy to catch and treat. Initially, many of these may seem like a cold or the flu. When these symptoms increase, seeing a doctor becomes absolutely imperative. We can attempt to diagnose these ourselves – many people know about inflamed lymph nodes, the white dots that are a sign of strep, or the rash-like outbreak of the mumps – but even a graduating health student can’t handle these issues alone. These are common outside of campus as well but, as noted above, colleges are something of a giant petri dish for such issues. Vaccinations are the greatest preventative measure against these. You and your student should also be on top of news from the campus, as it can provide a great warning sign when the risk of these illnesses increase.

The Party Problem

Returning to the stories we tell about college, everyone has a few party stories. Some are happier to tell them, but everyone has one. Unsurprisingly, parties and nightlife aren’t the healthiest things. Alcohol and sex run rampant on college campuses, and your student should be aware of the dangers of them. The CDC published some great guides to help your student educate themselves about alcohol and sex on college campuses.

While both are important, there is more than enough reading material about them in the world. Instead of rehashing what you’ve already heard, let’s talk about the two most common STDs on college campuses: mononucleosis and human papillomavirus (HPV).

Mononucleosis, or mono, is interesting in that it often materializes as something much like the flu. It leads to fatigue, fever and a sore throat. Mono is often an exaggerated version of the flu, lasting much longer than even the worst cases of influenza. Should you notice flu-like symptoms that feel abnormally harsh, or last longer than a week, you may have mono and should see a doctor immediately. In extreme cases, mono can lead to long term liver issues and enlargement of the spleen.

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is a bit of a sleeper disease. While it sometimes manifests no symptoms at all, it can lead to long term health issues. Some cases lead to genital warts, and cervical cancer in the long term. HPV itself cannot be treated, but it’s symptoms can. Of course, men are not at risk for cervical cancer, but students of any gender should be vaccinated for HPV if the possibility of sexual activity exists. Even if you don’t expect or want your student to be sexually active, you should not rule out the possibility.

At the end of the day, safe sex is the best preventative measure for any of these diseases. Colleges are often happy to provide free contraception, and your student should be educated and ready to take advantage of these things should the need arise. Ignorance is often bliss, but in situations like these, it can lead to complications. Be aware of these threats, and make your student aware.

Mental Health

Mental health issues are the greatest plague for college students today. In 2015, mental health on campus hit a new low, and things don’t seem to be getting better. Loretta G. Bruening refuted this belief in 2014, however, noting her belief that college students are better equipped now to deal with mental health issues than ever before. With this in mind, we can look much more optimistically at these statistics. As the stigma behind mental health issues is torn down, more students are able to admit their feelings. This allows them to better cope and seek help, as colleges divert more of their spending to mental health facilities.

In today’s world, almost every college is ready to help students going through a difficult emotional period. While news sources and journals attempt to pinpoint one specific cause for mental health issues, the truth is that many things can lead to them. The increased stress in the early years of colleges are perhaps the biggest culprits, as students struggle to find healthy coping mechanisms.

The greatest thing you can do as a parent to help your student through mental issues is to be there for them. Be aware of the symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and so on. Be ready with open arms when they need it. Help your student to develop healthy ways to destress during exam week. Mental health issues don’t have a vaccine, and medication is often a last ditch effort. Be prepared to serve as a therapist when needed, to help your student grow into a healthy and happy adult, and be ready to get them greater help when they need it.

College is a testing time, both for you and your student. Do not take the issues your student may have as a sign of your failure, but instead as your version of a final exam. The reins may have loosened, but they aren’t off yet. It’s time for your baby bird to fly, but you must be there to lift them up when necessary.

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