When the new school year starts, everyone is excited to be back on campus and see their friends again. Everything seems fun and new — until you’re a month in and your nose starts feeling stuffy, or your body starts to ache. Now what do you do?
Almost all students will at some point suffer through some of the most common illnesses in college; these range from the stomach flu to the common cold to strep throat, according to Dr. Christina Johns, senior medical advisor for PM Pediatrics.
So how do you cope when you have a test to study for but don’t feel like leaving your room?
1. Use preventative measures
Even better than getting treatment for an illness is preventing yourself from getting sick altogether.
“The best defense against common college campus infections is a good offense,” says Dr. Johns.
Simple measures that you’ve been taught your whole life, such as washing your hands or covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, still apply even though your mom isn’t there to remind you all the time.
Illnesses often thrive on college campuses because everyone is living in such close proximity with one another. If one of your friends is coming down with something, they will definitely understand if you keep your distance for a couple days until they get better, or at least carry around some hand sanitizer to kill any lingering germs.
“After class always make sure to wash your hands since you were sitting at a desk that you do not know who was sitting there before,” says Dr. David Greuner of NYC Surgical Associates. “Many times in college people always seem to be sharing things from utensils to drinks to toothbrushes even...I think the most common mistake is sharing items like water bottles, lipsticks, utensils, clothes, etc. If your friend is sick make sure to not share items with them.”
This gives BYOB a whole new level of importance — who knows how many germs can be lingering in shared Solo cups or bottles being passed around at bars and parties?
Above all, getting enough sleep and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, both for your body and your mind, are the best way to prevent illnesses.
“The biggest mistake by far that students make that results in sickness is letting themselves get run down,” says Dr. Johns. “Not getting enough sleep and eating poorly really plays a huge role in how well the body manages the inevitable occasional sickness that transpires from routine contact with circulating germs that cause illness.”
Stress also plays a huge role in staying healthy.
“Give yourself a break when life gets stressful,” says Timothy Jaconette, college admissions consultant and founder of Advanced Admit. “Very little in college is a life or death situation; constant stress and worrying can make your more prone to illnesses that will hamper your academic performance.”
2. Practice good hygiene
This doesn’t just apply to your hands, but where you live, too!
Keep your living area clean to keep yourself feeling healthy. Dirty clothes and sheets are a great way to let germs linger, and therefore increase your chances of getting sick.
“Do laundry regularly so that more germs aren’t hanging around in sweaty, dirty workout clothing,” says Dr. Johns.
Wash your sheets regularly, and don’t forget your pillowcases, too.
Additionally, be cautious about the cleanliness of anything you use around or on your eyes, like makeup or hand towels. Pink eye is extremely common on college campuses, so keeping anything that touches your eyes germ-free is your best bet to avoid it.
Besides just washing your hands, carry around hand sanitizer to use after class, before eating at the dining hall and after working out. Popular communal areas like classrooms and rec centers have so many people (and therefore so many germs) flowing in and out throughout the day, so it’s important to arm yourself against potential illness. It goes both ways, though — make sure you’re leaving spaces clean for the next use, like wiping down any gym equipment you use.
3. Take advantage of your student health center
Most campuses have student health centers catered towards taking care of their students’ health and well-being. Depending on your school, the services could include doctors and nurses for walk-in appointments, pharmacies to fill prescriptions or even mental health counseling. Investigate your resources before you get sick so you’re prepared for whatever cold and flu season throws at you.
In addition to student health centers, some dorms have programs to help you get well soon, too.
“Some dorms, such as those at UC Berkeley, have offered ‘health workers’ to students,” says Jaconette. “They are usually pre-med students who can help you out if you fall ill. Ask your RA about programs like this before you catch a cold.”
Even if your dorm doesn’t have a program like this, reach out to someone in the closest dining hall to you — they’ll usually give students “care packages” that include hot soup, cough drops and more.
4. Deal with your symptoms quickly
Once you start feeling under the weather, it’s important to figure out what exactly is wrong with you in order to properly treat yourself.
“Infections caused by viruses, like the common cold, mono, regular flu and stomach flu are all treated with just comfort measures and hydration alone,” Dr. Johns says. “Specific illnesses that are caused by a bacterial infection, like strep throat, need antibiotics.”
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have to power through an illness on your own. The sooner you start treating your illness, the sooner it will run its course.
“Your body has already been pushed to the limit, or you were exposed to someone with a mean virus and that might be why you are sick,” says Dr. Ian Tong, Chief Medical Officer at Doctor On Demand. “Once that happens, slow down and don’t hesitate to see a doctor. Most viral illnesses are self-limited [meaning it will go away on its own] and need to run their course, but seeing a doctor and treating your infection early for the flu, UTIs, meningitis and sexually transmitted infections is critical to preventing further spread and getting you to feel better faster.”
Be sure to visit your student health center or a local doctor as soon as you start feeling sick!
At some point in your college career, you’re likely going to find yourself feeling too sick to go to class or even get out of bed. Feeling sick is bad enough, but don’t prolong illness by not taking the appropriate steps to prevent, shorten and get rid of whatever’s got you down. If you start feeling a little under the weather, take a moment to slow down, and make sure you get some rest. Your body and your friends will thank you!