Home > Parent Perspective, Preventable Diseases, Seasonal Flu, Vaccines for PreTeens & Teens > 5 Ways to Keep Your College-Bound Student Healthy

5 Ways to Keep Your College-Bound Student Healthy

Preparing a kid for college is akin to preparing for their arrival at birth.  There are so many details to think about, choices to consider and preparations to be made that it’s easy to become completely overwhelmed.  As parents, we want nothing more than to ensure that our children are well prepared – both physically and emotionally – for all the challenges they are about to face.

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While it’s natural to focus on the dorm items your child might need, parents should also help prepare their teen for the responsibilities they will have in managing their own health. Once they move into that dorm, you will no longer be there to fill their prescriptions, fetch their medicine, make their doctor’s appointments, or otherwise ensure they are getting the medical attention they need.  It will be up to them to maintain a healthy diet, get adequate rest, and protect themselves from the dangers of alcohol, drugs and unwanted or unsafe sex.  They will need to know when to seek professional medical attention if they should get sick, injured or find themselves struggling with mental or physical needs.

Before your child heads off to college, here are five things you can do to help them stay healthy:

1.) Get your child a physical exam.  

When kids are young, parents are accustomed to bringing them in for well-visits.  However, it’s not uncommon for kids to miss yearly check-ups in lieu of sports physicals and sick visits.  Before your child heads to campus, make sure to schedule a comprehensive health exam.  The conversation your child has with the doctor should help prepare them to manage their current health conditions while away at school (such as any known allergies, specialist appointments and regular medications) while also opening the discussion to the dangers of stress, poor diet, inadequate sleep, binge drinking, drug experimentation and unsafe sex.  If their provider fails to cover these issues completely, it’s important that parents weigh in on these concerns as well.  You can let your child know that while you trust them to make responsible decisions, you are always available for advice and support.

2.) Get all the recommended vaccines, not just those required by the school.  

For many students, college can be a time of significant stress.  Students don’t always eat a healthy diet or get the proper rest. They live in close quarters and have a tendency to share cups and eating utensils.  At some point your child may travel, or engage with fellow students and faculty members who have traveled, to areas where diseases are more prevalent.  And studies show that college students are more likely to engage in risky behavior. All these conditions make students more susceptible to illness.  It is also what contributes to the chances of outbreaks occurring on collegiStock_000078067721_Double.jpge campuses.

Making sure your child is up-to-date on all the recommended vaccines, not just those required by the school, can help them avoid dangerous and sometimes even deadly illnesses.  While there are several immunizations that are recommended for college-age students, each state and college may have different admission requirements.

To best protect your college-bound student from preventable diseases, parents should consider the following vaccines for students before they arrive on campus:

Meningococcal vaccine: 

The scariest thing about meningococcal disease is that it strikes incredibly fast.  The symptoms often include a very bad headache and can even mimic the flu.  Nearly 500 people get meningococcal disease each year in the U.S. and 1 in 10 of these people die, many within 24-48 hours. Of those who survive, about 1 to 2 patients out of every 10 will have permanent disabilities such as brain damage, hearing loss, nervous system problems or limb amputations.

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Many states and colleges require students living in dorms to be vaccinated against meningococcal disease with a vaccine known as MenACWY.  The first dose is typically administered between ages 11-12, with a booster dose recommended beginning at age 16.  While this vaccine protects against serogroups A, C, W and Y, it doesn’t completely eliminate the risk of contracting meningitis.

There is another strain of meningococcal disease known as the serogroup B strain that has been identified on college campuses across the country.  In recent years colleges such as Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Rutgers and University of California at Santa Barbara have dealt with deadly outbreaks of meningococcal serogroup B. Fortunately, there is now a vaccine available to prevent the B strain.

If you’ve not heard about the MenB vaccine you’re not alone.  A recent poll showed that more than 80% of parents were not aware that there are multiple meningitis vaccines available. Since the vaccine has not yet been added to the standard vaccination schedule for all children, many adolescents are continuing to go unprotected against this very dangerous disease.

You can get your child the MenB vaccine starting at age 16 and it is administered in 2 or 3 doses depending on brand.  Talk to your child’s doctor, contact your local health department or visit our Vaccinate Your Family website for more information on the two different vaccines available to prevent meningococcal disease.

Tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis (Tdap) vaccine: 

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious airborne disease often referred to as the 100 day cough. It is still common in the United States and often spreads to teens when their infant vaccine (called DTaP) has worn off. Often those infected think they are suffering with a bad cold, and don’t seek medical attention.  Meanwhile, they are spreading the highly infectious disease to others, resulting in a growing number of outbreaks across the country.  Even if you contract pertussis, you are not protected from getting it again.  Temporary immunity from either natural infection or vaccination, can wane rather quickly. It is recommended that adolescents get a dose of Tdap vaccine at 11 or 12 years of age. Check to make sure your child has had their Tdap vaccine prior to heading to college.

Yearly influenza vaccine: 

Flu seasons are very unpredictable, but they typically occur between October and May with peaks between December and March, when many students are cramming for exams and traveling over breaks. Since flu can spread easily in close living quarters such as dorms, it’s important for students to protect themselves.  While most people who get flu will recover, some will suffer with serious complications like pneumonia.  Those students with chronic health problems like diabetes or asthma are at an even greater risk for complications from flu.  Even healthy teens can get very sick and die from flu.  By getting vaccinated as soon as the seasonal vaccine becomes available, students can spare themselves an illness that can result in hospitalization or death, as well as missed class and poor grades.

Human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine:

HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women will be infected with the virus at some point in their lives.  It’s best if your son or daughter receives this 3-dose vaccination series at age 11-12 because at that age they are less likely to have already been exposed to the virus and their immune system is most receptive to the vaccine. However, if your child hasn’t already received the full series of HPV vaccine, they can still get caught up.  Women can get the vaccine through age 26 and men through age 21.

The good news is that vaccination against the nine most prevalent HPV strains that are included in this vaccine can significantly reduce the risk of your child suffering with certain types of HPV-related cancers.  For instance, virtually all cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV.  HPV is even responsible for about 72% of cancers of the head, neck, throat, mouth, tongue and tonsils, 63% of penile cancers, 91% of anal cancers, 75% of vaginal cancer, and 50% of vulvar cancerApproximately 1 in 4 Americans are currently infected and about half of new infections each year occur in people ages 15-24.  Don’t wait until it’s too late.  Protect your child before they are exposed.

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3.) Compile a basic medicine kit to keep in their dorm room.  

College students don’t always have easy access to a pharmacy where they can buy over-the-counter medications.  To make sure your child is well prepared, assemble a medicine kit for the dorm room.  Include such basic items as a digital thermometer, sunscreen, ice pack, antibiotic cream, bandaids, medications for relief of cough, congestion, fever, pain, headache, inflammation, acid reflux, allergic reactions and diarrhea.  While there may be a campus clinic, chances are your child may become injured or ill when the clinic is closed. It’s better that your student be prepared with a few items on hand than to have to go out to get something when they are not feeling well.

4.) Visit the Campus Health Clinic with your student.

Whether you visit during a summer orientation session or on move-in day, be sure to make time for you and your child to visit the Campus Health Clinic.  By visiting together you’ll make sure your child knows exactly where it is located, when it is open and what to expect when they get there.  Ask the staff about the kinds of services they offer, how students can get prescriptions filled, and who to contact when the clinic is closed or in the case of a medical emergency. And while you’re there, have your child add the clinic phone number to their phone and make a note of their location and operating hours for future reference.

Don’t forget to ask if they offer vaccines, especially influenza vaccines that are recommended each year. If not, encourage your child to go to a local pharmacy or check on the HealthMap Finder website for locations where vaccines are offered.

5.) Don’t make assumptions.

Don’t assume your healthy child will never get sick.  Don’t assume your responsible child will take proper care of themselves while away at college. And don’t assume your insurance will cover them in a medical emergency.

Contact your insurance company and review the procedures of how your student is to go about seeking medical care if they need it.  Make sure they keep their insurance card in a safe place and suggest that they save a photo of the insurance card on their phone.  Make sure your student knows that they should not hesitate to call you if they are uncertain about how to handle a delicate or complicated health issue.

The college transition can be difficult for parents and students.  There is a lot to prepare for and a sense that we don’t always know what to expect.  While we don’t like to think about bad things happening, a little planning can help ensure a smooth transition.  With some preventive health measures in place, parents and students can feel more prepared for the unexpected.  And that peace of mind is priceless.

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