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7 Illnesses You Might Catch in College (& How to Avoid Them)


College is a stressful time. During the school year, we run around campus like there’s no tomorrow, often not sleeping enough and eating a pretty poor diet. And although we feel invincible, neglecting our health for too long can eventually weaken our immune system to the point that we catch any bug going around. Luckily, HC is here to help you fight them! We asked health experts about some of the most common diseases on college campuses, and they offered their advice for how to avoid them in the first place.

1. Meningitis

What it is

There are many types of meningitis. The term refers to “an infection of the space between the brain and the outer covering that envelops the brain, an area called the meninges,” says Gerald Ryan, M.D., director of clinical services at the University of Wisconsin—Madison University Health Services. Most of these infections are relatively harmless.

According to Robert D. Ernst, M.D., medical director of University Health Service at the University of Michigan, symptoms include headache, fever and stiff neck. “This is most commonly caused by viruses … like the common cold (coughing, sneezing and sharing of germs),” Dr. Ernst explains.

Although most viral types of meningitis are nothing to worry about, forms of the disease caused by bacteria are much more serious. “Bacterial meningitis is potentially life-threatening or associated with permanent neurological damage,” Dr. Ernst says. This is why it’s important to diagnose your meningitis early on.

Because meningitis is most often caused by a virus, it tends to be highly contagious. “Most cases of meningitis occur in babies and elderly people,” Dr. Ryan says, but if your immune system is run down, you are also at risk of contracting it in its least serious form.

With that in mind, you should be aware that “the type of meningitis that everyone is concerned about in the college age group is meningococcal meningitis,” Dr. Ryan says. “Fortunately, meningococcal meningitis is not very common, but unfortunately, it is very serious and has a high fatality rate.” The reason many cases of meningococcal meningitis occur in college is that we’re exposed to many new people at once.

How to avoid it

There are vaccines you can get that prevent certain types of bacterial meningitis, including one for meningococcal meningitis. According to Dr. Ryan, this vaccine is recommended for all college students before they start school. However, this form of prevention is not 100 percent effective.

But the best way to avoid the disease is much more straightforward. “Prevention of meningitis is pretty much the same as any other infectious illness,” Dr. Ryan says. “Wash your hands frequently, don’t share eating or drinking utensils with others and cover your mouth and nose with your elbow when you sneeze or cough.” Simple enough!

How to treat it

Most viral meningitis will go away without treatment within a week or so. “However, as early in the course as possible, it is important to rule out bacterial causes of meningitis,” Dr. Ernst says. This means that a doctor will prescribe you antibiotics in case your meningitis is caused by bacteria rather than a virus. In order to exclude bacterial meningitis entirely, you’ll have to have a spinal tap (an analysis of the fluid in your spine).

2. HPV

What it is

Human papillomavirus, or HPV, “refers to a family of very common wart-forming viruses that are spread by skin-to-skin contact,” Dr. Ernst says. “In the case of the subtypes of HPV associated with genital warts and cervical cancer, this generally means intimate contact. It is possible to acquire the virus and to spread it to others even in the absence of visible warts.”

Some subtypes of HPV are specifically sexually transmitted infections, but others can cause warts on the hands and feet, which can spread easily in places like locker rooms or shared bathrooms, according to Dr. Ernst.

Although this infection can cause obvious warts, there are often no noticeable symptoms of HPV. Unfortunately, there’s no way to detect it in the absence of symptoms, and it can spread regardless.

Finally, “certain subtypes are associated with genital warts and others are associated with cervical dysplasia or cervical cancer, which are detected by a pap smear,” Dr. Ernst says.

How to avoid it

Luckily, there is a very effective three-step vaccine against HPV, Gardasil, but its effectiveness is only guaranteed if you have never been infected with the virus. “This is why the vaccine is recommended for adolescent girls and boys,” Dr. Ryan says. “Current recommendations are to offer the vaccine to women up through the age of 26, but for sexually active women, the benefit of the vaccine declines pretty rapidly after the age of 18, as most women acquire the infection early in their sexual activity.”

Although Gardasil has its limits, it “protects against acquisition of the two most common subtypes of HPV associated with genital warts and the two most common subtypes associated with cervical dysplasia and cancer,” Dr. Ernst says. “This is why the vaccine is such a major public health advance – it actually prevents cancer.” Repeat: prevents cancer. Who said science was boring?

Since an HPV infection of the cervix is a sexually transmitted infection, condoms are the other recommended method of prevention. “Most women, if they have not had the vaccine and do not use condoms, will eventually be infected with HPV viruses,” Dr. Ryan says.

How to treat it

When dealing with HPV, your motto should be: “better safe than sorry.” Prevention methods are very advanced, whereas treatment is far from it. Dr. Ernst explains that HPV-induced warts can be treated, but the infection itself cannot. There are surgical procedures for dysplasia or cancer of the cervix should it develop, but these methods do not cure the virus either.

The good news is that, typically, HPV infections are transient — they disappear spontaneously after a few months.

3. The flu

What it is

The flu is similar to the common cold, but, according to Dr. Ernst, “influenza is a more serious respiratory illness that presents with sudden onset of high fever, cough, body aches and fatigue.” The flu stems from a highly contagious virus.

How to avoid it

Getting a vaccine each fall is the most effective method of prevention against the flu. With that in mind, the effectiveness of the vaccine can fluctuate seasonally. “Influenza viruses mutate frequently, and that is why the content of influenza vaccines changes from year to year,” Dr. Ryan explains. “Epidemiologists have to make a guess each year as to what they think is likely to cause influenza in the coming year.” This is why some years the vaccine is a good match for the flu, while other years it isn’t as effective.

In addition to getting vaccinated, “it is important to cover your mouth or nose when coughing and sneezing, because influenza can be spread by aerosolized droplets,” Dr. Ryan says. Also, make sure you wash your hands frequently and consider carrying hand sanitizer with you to further prevent the risk of catching the flu.

How to treat it

There’s over-the-counter medication available to treat flu symptoms, but it doesn’t make the infection go away. Dr. Ernst has recommendations to treat seasonal cold symptoms, which will also help with flu symptoms: “Get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluid, take ibuprofen and decongestants.” You should see your flu disappear within one or two weeks. For more information, check out this comprehensive website.

4. Mono

What it is

Mononucleosis “is very common and is caused by viruses spread through saliva,” Dr. Ernst says. This is why mono is often referred to as “the kissing disease,” although you can also catch it by interacting with a person who is sneezing and coughing.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to figure out from whom you might have caught mono. Dr. Ryan explains that it can take 30 to 50 days between when you get infected and when you actually notice symptoms.

As for the symptoms associated with mono, they are unpleasant, to say the least. “It manifests as fever, painful swollen tonsils and enlarged lymph nodes,” Dr. Ernst says. “There can frequently be a generalized body rash and sometimes an enlarged spleen. Often patients experience fatigue.”

Depending on the severity of your infection, “symptoms may be mild and resolve after just a few days, but sometimes patients are quite ill for up to several weeks,” Dr. Ernst says.

How to avoid it

“There is not treatment for mono other than supportive care,” Dr. Ryan says. In the same way, there is no foolproof method of prevention, except remembering to wash your hands and not kissing or sharing glasses and silverware with someone who has mono. But on the bright side, “you can only get mono once,” Dr. Ryan says. “For some people, the antibody levels remain elevated for a long time, so any repeat testing would be positive, but you can only be infected and become symptomatic once.”

Unfortunately, even when you have recovered from mono, you can still infect others. “Once recovered from the acute episode [i.e., being ill], the virus is still shed, but at a lower level,” Dr. Ernst says. “The viruses that are most commonly associated with mono [Epstein-Barr virus, or EBV] are members of the herpes family, so once acquired, we never rid ourselves of them.”

5. Pinkeye

What it is

The proper name for pinkeye is conjunctivitis, which can be contracted through either viruses or bacteria. “Most cases of pinkeye are viral and not bacterial,” Dr. Ryan says. “In general, bacterial conjunctivitis will produce a lot of yellow drainage [in your eye] all day long. With viral conjunctivitis, the person may have some crusting and discharge when they wake up in the morning, but during the day the drainage is usually watery and not thick and yellow.”

How to avoid it

There is no vaccine against pinkeye. The only way to prevent an infection is through frequent hand-washing, especially if you are or have been in contact with someone who has the disease. This is all the more important if you have contracted pinkeye yourself, because, according to Dr. Ryan, the infection can spread very quickly through skin-to-skin contact. That is to say, if a person with pinkeye rubs the infected eye, the infection will spread to his or her hand and to anything that hand touches.

How to treat it

Conjunctivitis will usually disappear on its own after a few days, “but, to be safe, [you should] cover with a topical antibiotic eyedrop,” Dr. Ernst says.

6. Bladder infections (UTIs)

What they are

Urinary tract infections, or bladder infections, “are among the most common infections we see in college women and may recur frequently,” Dr. Ernst says. These infections can cause a lot of discomfort, as they “typically present with painful and more frequent urination (sometimes blood in the urine).”

Urinary tract infections are caused by the migration of bacteria from the vaginal area into the urethra and the bladder. “Intercourse seems to facilitate this,” Dr. Ernst says.

How to avoid them

Thankfully, bladder infections can be quite easily prevented. Dr. Ernst explains that both staying hydrated and peeing regularly (as opposed to holding it in) are key. Peeing after sex is especially important, because here the retained urine could worsen the infection.

Some women are more prone to UTIs, “and for some who have multiple infections each year, we sometimes prescribe a daily antibiotic to prevent subsequent episodes,” Dr. Ernst says.

How to treat them

If you catch a UTI, your doctor will prescribe you antibiotics, according to Dr. Ernst. You should feel better within a day or two!


What it is

MRSA stands for Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and “is an emerging skin infection that we are seeing much more commonly,” Dr. Ernst says. “The typical presentation is an enlarged, red, painful skin boil, which is basically a pocket of pus under the skin.”

This skin condition spreads very easily through contact with contaminated surfaces. “Gym equipment, locker rooms [and] towels are often implicated as sources of infection,” Dr. Ernst explains. Because of crowded campus gyms and dorm showers, for instance, college students are at a high risk for MRSA.

How to avoid it

MRSA spreads quickly, but there are some measures you can take to avoid contracting it. “Avoidance of shared personal items (like towels) and either spray disinfection or avoidance of direct skin contact with gym surfaces can prevent spread,” Dr. Ernst says. Make sure to always wipe down your gym equipment after using it, and before as well if you didn’t see the previous person do it. Once again, wash your hands as often as possible, and you should be good to go!

How to treat it

If you contract MRSA, you will be prescribed antibiotics, but these alone will not make the painful boils disappear. Warm soaks will sometimes do the trick, but most often you will have to have an office procedure, according to Dr. Ernst. A doctor will remove pus from the boils under local anaesthesia. This operation is messy and painful, so make sure to follow our prevention tips in order to avoid it!

Our late teens and early twenties should be one of the healthiest times of our lives, but our crazy college rhythms can quickly run our immune systems down. Being in constant close contact with our peers can make us extremely prone to all sorts of viruses and infections, too. But if you follow our tips, you should be well on your way to your healthiest year yet. Take care, collegiettes!

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