College Game Plan

Freshman Challenge: How To Keep Kids Healthy, Happy In College

Image: Prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus

Prospective students tour Georgetown University's campus in Washington, Wednesday, July 10, 2013. The defeat of a student loan bill in the Senate on Wednesday clears the way for fresh negotiations to restore lower rates, but lawmakers are racing the clock before millions of students return to campus next month to find borrowing terms twice as high as when school let out. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) Jacquelyn Martin / AP, file

No adult likes to get sick, especially away from home. Remember being ill when you were a college freshman stuck in a musty dorm room and trying not to scream for mom?

Making the transition to college life is tough, but there are things you can do now to help your freshman stay healthy. We’ll be adding more tips throughout the year.

Do Your Homework

Since most colleges require some sort of medical form to be completed before admission, make sure you and your college-bound student know what is required, suggests internal medicine specialist Dr. Holly Gooding of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

“We get quite busy in the summer months with students heading off to college or with students who will be living at home while attending college,” says Gooding, who is also a specialist in adolescent medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital. It doesn’t matter where they live, though, since this move into adulthood requires lots of guidance when it comes to good health.

Related: Anxiety on Campus: 6 Ways Parents Can See Past the Happy 'Mask'

The first step:

Students should learn about any chronic medical condition they have, such as allergies, and become familiar with their medications. Parents often do a lot of medication-management for children in grade school and high school. Once they’re off to college, students become responsible for their well-being.

"What everyone wants to do is give a student the education and tools they need to make the best decisions to protect their health."

Students also need to learn about their campus student health center and what it offers. “Almost every campus has some type of health center for its students, so a parent and their child need to go to the college website and see how it can be accessed,” Gooding suggests. “That way the student will know where to go if they really don’t feel well.”

“Relatively few” colleges in the U.S. have systems in place to “identify and contact” kids with chronic conditions, according to a study in the journal Pediatrics. However, many of these centers can provide primary care services for some conditions.

“That’s why it is so important to see what a particular campus can and can’t do in terms of health services,” says Gooding, assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.

The next step:

Make a game plan as to what a student with a chronic condition should do if he needs help managing a disease away from home.

Image: A freshmen student moves into her dorm in UCLA
A student moves into her dorm at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Lucy Nicholson / Reuters, file

Get Vaccinated

Infectious diseases love dorm living. Although colleges may have their own requirements for admission, and these may vary by state, here are some vaccinations to consider:


Bacterial meningitis is a serious disease that can cause disability and death. College kids living in dorms are at particular risk.

There are different types, or so-called serogroups, of meningitis, and the standard vaccination, called meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY), protects against four of the serogroups: A, C, W and Y.

Some recent cases on college campuses have been serogroup B outbreaks, which the standard vaccine doesn’t protect against. However, in 2014, vaccines protecting against the B type of meningitis (MenB vaccine) became available in the U.S.

Here is what the CDC recommends: If you’re a first-year college student living in a residence hall, get the meningococcal conjugate vaccine (MenACWY). If a child received this vaccine before his 16th birthday, he should get a booster dose before going to college for maximum protection.

The CDC also says vaccines protecting against the B strain of meningitis (MenB) may be administered to adolescents and young adults 16-23 years old, especially for those who are at increased risk due to disease outbreak.

Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis

The Tdap vaccine protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis, also known as whooping cough. A single dose is recommended for preteens and teens (preferably at 11-12 years old). But adults 19 and older who did not get the vaccine when they were younger should receive a single dose of Tdap, according to the CDC.


Infection with the human papillomavirus, or HPV, is very common. About 14 million people, including teens, become infected with HPV each year and the virus can cause cervical, vaginal and vulvar cancers in women, and penile cancer in men, according to the CDC. Generally, the vaccine is given in a series of three doses and is recommended at ages 11 or 12.

If you didn’t get the vaccine at the recommended age—or didn't finish the series—getting vaccinated is still recommended. The HPV vaccine series doesn’t even need to be restarted if there is a long gap in between doses, according to the CDC.


An annual flu shot can protect almost all of us from the havoc of the seasonal flu, but it works best among young healthy adults and older children, according to the CDC.

Get An STD Screening

Nearly half of the 20 million new STDs each year are among people 15-24 years old, according to the CDC.

That’s why sexual health screening is such an important part of a well visit exam before college, says Gooding. “I will ask my patients, confidentially, if they are sexually active, or they plan on becoming sexually active when they go off to college,” she says, adding that discussion includes all aspects of sexuality, including contraception, healthy relationships versus hook-up culture, sexual orientation and more.

“I spend a lot of time talking to young men and young women about how (having) sex is a very individual decision, and that it’s OK not to have sex, and if they plan on having sex how are they going to protect themselves and what do they want in a sexual relationship.”

Image: A condom
An unwrapped condom. Niall Carson / AP file


If you do have sex, be smart and use condoms. (Latex male and female condoms can reduce the risk of transmission of some STDs. But condoms have to be used correctly and consistently, according to the CDC.)

Chlamydia And Gonorrhea Screening

Getting screened for chlamydia and gonorrhea is especially important for women since both infections are asymptomatic in females. Both infections can lead to a host of problems and may facilitate HIV transmission. Plus, chlamydia and gonorrhea can be transmitted through oral sex, not just vaginal or anal sex.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends all women age 24 and under get screened for both infections.

Get a Mental Health Screening

About 9.5 percent of college freshmen report they frequently “felt depressed” within the past year, up from about 6 percent five years ago, according to the “The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2014” survey of some 150,000 U.S. students.

“Depression screening is definitely part of well adolescent care,” says pediatrician Dr. Sara Lee of the University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio. “There are ranges as to how well adolescents deal with stress and depression and anxiety. So identifying issues early can only help a student succeed.”

Before heading into freshman year, doctors and their college-bound patients can also discuss nutrition and help identify any potential eating disorders, substance abuse problems, including binge drinking and drug use, says Gooding.

It’s also a great time to discuss what the college-bound student may do when faced with new, high-risk situations. “The pressures of trying to fit in or stay sober while everyone around you is partying can be really tough,” says Gooding. “What everyone wants to do is give a student the education and tools they need to make the best decisions to protect their health.”