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Sick at School? Read Our Survival Guide For College Students

Getting sick at home is bad, but getting sick at college is worse. Here are tips for preventing, treating, and recovering from the germs in your dorm.
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Getting sick at home is bad enough, but getting sick at college — without a stocked refrigerator and medicine cabinet, a familiar doctor and family members to help — is even worse. And sickness can have very real costs for students’ grades.

"The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment revealed that in Spring 2015, 15 percent of students reported that in the past 12 months a cold, flu and sore throat negatively impacted their individual academic performance," said Dr. Carlo Ciotoli, associate vice president at NYU Student Health Center.

Get more tips and advice about college at The Freshman Year Experience

Sickness season is upon us, so bookmark these tips for preventing, treating, and recovering from whatever nasty germs are circulating in your dorm.

Before you're sick

STOCK UP. Keep over-the-counter medications and some easy-to-prepare snacks or warm drinks in your room. Get throat lozenges, analgesics (Advil, Aleve, Tylenol, but not aspirin) for fever or aches, saline nasal spray and a decongestant. Stock up on soups or noodles that require only hot water. A warm salt-water gargle or hot water or tea with honey help soothe sore throats.

KNOW YOUR OPTIONS. Acquaint yourself with the health and medical services on campus and in town. Many colleges health centers have nurses and physicians for extended hours and pharmacies on campus. Look online for hours and listings of local walk-in clinics, pharmacies and emergency rooms. Some health centers have call-in lines for speaking to a nurse and getting medical advice.

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GET VACCINATED. "One of the most important actions students can take to protect themselves from the flu is to get an annual flu vaccine," Dr. Ciotoli said. Many student health services offer flu vaccines either free or at reduced rates. Or walk into an urgent care clinic or drugstore, where shots are often free.

WASH YOUR HANDS. Reduce your exposure to germs by making a habit of scrubbing with warm water and soap. Use a hand sanitizer when hand-washing is not convenient.

SLEEP. At least 7 or 8 hours a night, said Dr. Ciotoli, and avoid alcohol, smoking, and caffeine.

DISINFECT. When your roommates and friends gets sick, be particularly careful about the contact you have with them and with any objects or surfaces they may have touched. Don’t share food, drinks or towels, and wipe down counters or items in the bathroom or kitchen that you and they touch frequently with a disinfectant.

When to seek care

Many illnesses, such as common colds, have no “cure” and, with the help of some symptom relievers, simply need to run their course. But there are other illnesses, such as strep throat, which require medical attention.

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These symptoms should send you to the health center, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • A fever of 102°F (39°C) or higher
  • Pain in the abdomen that will not go away
  • A persistent cough, chest pain, or trouble breathing
  • A very sore throat
  • Pain in your ears or sinuses
  • A persistent fever
  • Stiff neck
  • Severe headache
  • A flat, pink, red, or purple rash
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Headache
  • Swollen lymph nodes (glands) in the neck
  • Extreme tiredness
  • Pain or any other symptoms that worry you or last longer than you think they should

When sickness strikes

REACH OUT. Let a friend know that you are not well. Boston University advises their students to get a “flu buddy,” a designated pal who can check up on you, bring you meals and drinks, and pick up supplies at the drugstore. At some colleges, like the University of Michigan, students can order sick trays from the cafeteria online and ask a friend to deliver.

DRINK. Your mom was right when she nagged you about drinking fluids. Water and juice help counteract dehydration from a fever or illness. Coffee and alcohol do not.

SLEEP EVEN MORE. College students are notoriously sleep-averse, but one of the most effective ways to aid recovery is to let rest. Missing a class isn’t ideal, but the extra rest may speed your recovery.

CALL MOM AND DAD. Your parents have experience with your health and know what medications have worked well for you in the past and how quickly you have recovered. They may offer love, a compassionate ear, some advice and your health insurance number if you can’t find it.

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TAKE MEDS WITH CAUTION. Before you take over-the-counter medications and cough drops, carefully read the ingredients and dosage instructions. A pharmacist can help you find the right medication for your symptoms. Beware of multi-symptom medications (a single medicine designed to treat, for example, fever, congestion and coughing) as it may be more medication than you need. Don’t double up on ingredients if you take multiple meds.

SPEAK UP. Visiting a college health center may be the first time you have sought medical care on your own. Tell the doctor or nurse all of your symptoms and concerns, not just the ones they have asked about. If you feel they don’t understand the severity of a symptom or how much it is bothering you, repeat yourself.

Lisa Heffernan is the mother of one college student and two recent grads. She is a writer and co-founder of Grown and Flown, a site for parents of 15-25 year-olds.