Back to school: Health tips for college freshmen

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Inbound college students are gearing up to head to campus this fall. In addition to shopping for dorm room décor and browsing new course catalogues, it is important that they make time for their health. For many freshmen, moving away to school may mean taking responsibility for their own health and wellness for the first time.

In a recent interview with Make it Better magazine, Geoffrey Hart-Cooper, MD, a pediatrician with Stanford Children’s Health Peninsula Pediatric Medical Group, offered advice to help college freshman prepare for a healthy school year–from vaccines to first-aid supplies to important conversations teens should have with their parents and physicians before moving to school.

Q: What vaccines do I need before going to college?

Dr. Hart-Cooper: Luckily, there aren’t any new mandatory vaccinations you need to get before college if you’ve been going to your regular well teen checks. Just make sure you’re all caught up on the recommended vaccines for your age group, which include the two-dose meningococcal series as well as the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine series. In addition to the standard meningococcal vaccine, you can opt to receive the meningococcal B vaccine. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends that patients and providers have an individualized discussion about the vaccine, given that the likelihood of encountering the disease is low. However, meningococcal disease is severe and has substantial morbidity and mortality, so I tend to recommend it.

Crowded dormitories mean you are much more likely to be exposed to the flu. Be sure you get your flu vaccine as early in the flu season as possible. It is usually offered beginning in September. The flu can cause about a week of missed classes and nursing yourself back to health in your dorm room. Not fun!

Q: Should I bring a first-aid kit when I move away to school? What should it include?

Dr. Hart-Cooper: First-aid kits are nice to have in case you (or your friends) have a minor medical issue and don’t have access to a pharmacy nearby. A standard first-aid kit will be just fine and should include medications for pain relief (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen) and antihistamines (such as Benadryl, cetirizine, fexofenadine or loratadine). Be sure to review the appropriate dosages for these medications and how often you can take them. Helpful tools to have in your kit can include tweezers, bandages, antibiotic ointment, an ice pack, an elastic bandage and a thermometer.

I also recommend identifying the best way to get in touch with a doctor for routine or urgent questions — even before they may come up. This is often through your school’s student health clinic, but the clinic’s hours can vary.

Q: Do I need to make an appointment with my doctor before I leave?

Dr. Hart-Cooper: I recommend scheduling a visit with your pediatrician prior to going to college to discuss any health-related questions you have. We see patients go to college every year and enjoy supporting you during this big transition.

Q: What topics do you recommend patients discuss at home with family, in addition to what may be covered in a doctor’s visit?

Dr. Hart-Cooper: Here’s a mnemonic to help guide pre-college conversations you may be having at home: PQRST.

P: Paying for things

  • How will you be covering incidental costs like going out to eat, replacing a toothbrush or buying that winter jacket you never thought you’d need? Decide on whether the funds will come from a monthly allowance from family, a work-study job and/or other part-time work. Having a predictable monthly income helps teens learn how to budget, which is a lifelong skill.

Q: Quality of your physical, emotional and mental health

  • If you are used to regular exercise, be sure to keep it up! If not, consider enrolling in an exercise class offered through your school. Regular exercise will help you stay fit and provide structure to your week.
  • For chronic medical conditions, develop a plan that includes information about how to contact a physician and where to go for care. If you take medication, be sure to have enough refills to get through the first semester, and schedule any necessary follow-up appointments you’ll need (either while at school or when you come home for breaks) before you head off to school. It’s also important to let the student health clinic know about any medical needs you may have.
  • Know how to access mental health services at school and when to seek help.

R: Relationships

  • Review the importance of healthy friendships and relationships that are supportive.
  • It’s important to review information about reproductive health and to go over this with your doctor, as well. When considering your options, remember that condoms protect against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and contraception (pills, patches, intrauterine devices, depo shots) protects against pregnancy but not STIs. There is also a medication known as PrEP that can protect against HIV. It’s best to start discussing reproductive health before becoming sexually active, and you should know where to find a doctor that will support this plan while at college. Many young adults are still on their parents’ insurance plans and are afraid these costs will show up on their parents’ bill. Parents: Let your college student know that you want them to have access to the best health care, including reproductive health, and that you are OK with these costs.
  • Parents: Emphasize your support for your child regardless of which partners they choose. For sexual and gender minority young adults (LGBTQ), college can be a time of exploring their sexual identity.

S: Substances

  • Many young adults want to explore new things in college, which can include alcohol and other substances. Parents: Have a conversation about how to approach this safely as well as the importance of not driving while under the influence (or being in the car of a driver who is under the influence).

T: Time

  • College is full of unstructured free time. Think of ways to continue the activities/hobbies/extracurriculars you love and new ones you’d like to try. These can be great ways to meet new people and develop confidence in a new environment.
  • Think of time-management tips that have worked for you in the past and decide how you will keep these up without parental supervision.
  • Discuss how often you’ll connect with your family. Some young adults want to check in on a daily basis; others like more space. Setting expectations now can avoid conflicts later.

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