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College Freshmen Will Get Sick. Here's How to Prepare

The early weeks of college are a time of great health risk. Here's how to stay healthy — and what to make sure you do if you do get ill.

Freshmen get sick — a lot.

“Every year freshmen come into my office and say, ‘I have never been sick like this in my life. There must be something wrong with me,’” said Dr. Jeffrey Anderson, director of medical services at the University of Connecticut student health center. “And I say, ‘Yes, you are a freshman. That is what is wrong.”

But when freshmen are ill, most are dealing with their own health care for the first time, and that can lead to confusion, misinformation and poor decisions.

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The early weeks of college are a time of great health risk. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “the first six weeks of freshman year is an especially vulnerable time for heavy drinking and alcohol-related consequences because of student expectations and social pressures at the start of the academic year.” Research suggests that freshman year is also a high-risk time for depression, sexual assault and drug use.

“Parents can play an important role, even from a distance, in setting expectations for their students, particularly around healthier forms of fun on campus,” says Dr. James Jacobs, medical director of the University of Southern California Student Center and associate professor of clinical pediatrics.

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At some point your freshman will call seeking medical advice and parental comfort. Here are ways to prepare.

Show them how to access health services.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that sometime during freshman drop-off, parents should help their teens find the health center, the closest urgent care facility and the emergency room. Students should know how appointment systems or walk-in clinics operate, which services are offered on campus and which might require a local doctor. Review how to use the family health insurance policy for medical services and prescriptions, if he or she is still covered.

Teach your teen his or her health history.

Sure, it’s their bodies and they ought to know, but the reality is that parents are often the point of contact with pediatricians. When the urgent care physician about to stitch your freshman’s knee asks when she had her last tetanus shot, will she know the answer?

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Dr. Peter Richel, chief of pediatrics at Northern Westchester Hospital, gives his patients leaving for college a one-page summary of their most recent check-up, which includes a record of all vaccines and allergies. He urges parents and students to ask for this abbreviated medical record if they are not offered one.

If the freshman has a chronic condition, like diabetes, Crohn's or some form of mental illness, Dr. Richel suggests that parents provide a short written summary of major medical issues, past hospitalizations or surgeries, and current medications. At many universities, said Dr. Anderson, student health services will reach out if there is a known chronic health condition before matriculation to help ease the transition and put the student in touch with campus services.

Consider the issue of privacy.

While parents have obsessed over their child’s health since before they were even born, federal privacy laws dictate that once a teen is 18, parents have no right to their medical information. Deborah L. Jacobs, a lawyer, journalist, the author of Estate Planning Smarts and the mother of a college freshman, suggests parents talk with their college kids about the fact that should the teen be ill or injured, the parent will, in most cases, be unable to discuss matters with the attending physician without the student’s authorization.

Jacobs recommends a “consent for verbal communication” form, available at the student health center, which authorizes parents to discuss medical issues with the university physician. Many forms have opt-out provisions for substance abuse, mental health, HIV and STD issues.

This approach is not without its detractors: Dr. Jacobs actively discourages students from signing a blanket agreement. Students, he said, often find that situations and life events change in a way they could not have anticipated a few months earlier. The student health center should engage with them as adults and, he said, students should sign a release only as needed.

Teach teens during high school how to use over-the-counter remedies.

Send students to campus with a few simple medications like ibuprofen and Pepto Bismol for use when needed, particularly late at night, said Dr. Jacobs. But he and Dr. Anderson caution that students should have only a few necessary medications that have a single active ingredient (like Advil or Benadryl, as opposed to multiple-ingredient flu remedies) to avoid unknowingly doubling up.

Stay in touch.

In their advice to freshmen, the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests, "Once your teen is settled into the college routine, keep in close contact and try to get frequent readings about how he is doing academically and socially. This is especially important during the first month or so while teens are still trying to settle in and may not have made friends yet."

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Dr. Richel cautions parents to keep attuned their freshman. Parents should listen closely to the tone of their kids’ voices, and even their texts, and note any abrupt changes in voice or behavior like increased or decreased amount of sleep. Roommates and new friends may not have known a freshman long enough to discern that anything is wrong.

Help them avoid a night that changes the rest of their lives.

Alcohol is the biggest risk factor in serious misjudgment, said Dr. Anderson, whether a student is driving under the influence or is a passenger in a car where the driver has been drinking. Talk about fights in bars, because guns and knives change everything. And caution students about sexual encounters where either party has not fully consented.

Tell your freshman you're always there — even if you're far away.

Parents can feel helpless when a sick teen calls from college. But they should still urge their students to call when they need help. Sure, freshmen may not want to talk about some of their health issues and may lie to avoid nagging, but they should know the line is always open.

Lisa Heffernan is a mom of two college graduates and one college student and the co-founder of Grown and Flown, a blog for parents raising kids ages 15-24.