Infectious mono can hit students like a sledgehammer, knocking them out of classes for days, weeks or even a semester. Other times, it sneaks around an immune system, unbeknownst to its host. Influenza, respiratory infections, strep throat and a bevy of other illnesses can move into a student’s system like an unwanted roommate.
Given tight dorm rooms, abbreviated sleep patterns and changes in diet and stress levels, it’s a wonder that college students don’t come down with more illnesses. There are, however, basic tips for students as they head out to institutions of greater learning and new populations of viruses and bacteria.
Karen Menzuber, registered nurse and a longtime school nurse in Chanhassen, has two college-age daughters. Along with the laundry list of other must-have dorm items, Menzuber reminds to pack acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen, allergy medicine, antibacterial wipes, antibiotic ointment, bandages, cough drops/medicine, hand soap, multivitamins, nail clippers, tissue and tweezers.
Catching a cold or the flu can be unavoidable, but Menzuber recommends some lifestyle habits to reduce the odds. She suggests students frequently wash their hands with soap and water; launder bedding and towels at least once a week; refrain from sharing eating utensils, water bottles and other drinking vessels; eat healthful foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables; exercise daily and “Sleep, sleep, sleep as much as possible,” she says. “Adequate amount of sleep is much more important than young people think,” says Jennifer Krzmarzick, M.D., director of primary care at the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service.
While living at home, students are used to a parent determining if they need to seek extra medical attention, so it makes sense to talk with students about what does and doesn’t warrant attention. “I think you should be seen if you have a fever over 101 or if you have symptoms more than a common cold and/or if you cannot perform daily activities,” Menzuber says, adding she cautions students against waiting too long to be seen by a healthcare professional. “I have been called and texted many times from students and parents,” she says. “Many calls involve me listening to symptoms and giving advice on whether they need to seek medical help or not.”
Where to go for medical assistance also factors into the picture. A campus’ student health service is an obvious choice, but not the only one to consider. “I have heard from many students from various colleges that it is hard to be seen in a timely manner (at student health),” Menzuber says. “I know of one parent who had to fly to be with their child because they were so sick and others who have had their student come home until they were better.”
It’s wise to make a list of other medical facilities near students and within the family’s insurance plan. “Students are just learning to navigate the healthcare system on their own when they come to college,” Krzmarzick says. “They are often unaware of their insurance and what it does and doesn't cover. Also understanding the different types of care provided (urgent care, primary care, quick clinic care, etc.) can be confusing for students.” (At Boynton, there is a 24-hour nurse line that can help students locate after-hours care.)
If a parent wants to discuss a student’s care (in or out of an emergency) with a healthcare professional, take note—it’s not as easy as it was when the child was under the age of 18. Consumer Reports recommends parents and students fill out Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) authorization, allowing healthcare providers to discuss health information with those specified on the form. Secondly, medical power of attorney allows for an “agent” to make medical decisions in case of incapacitation.
Consumer Reports alerts parents to fill out forms for both home and school states if the student is attending a school in another state. Be sure to inquire if the school has additional forms, as well. “Once the forms are completed, it’s a good idea to scan and save them, so that they are readily available on a smartphone or home computer,” it states. “Bringing a list of completed immunizations is probably the most important document to have,” Krzmarzick says.
Encouraging children to take an active role during medical visits prior to going to college prepares them to speak on their own behalf. “They are going to be their own advocates,” Menzuber says. “Their parents aren’t going to be (at college). It’s good to have a little practice.”
(While information related to chemical, mental and sexual health is imperative, this article focuses on basic illnesses.)