Sending your child off to college can be anxiety-provoking on so many levels. Among other things, you won’t be there to make sure they’re being safe and are eating and sleeping well. And, for the first time, you also won’t be on-hand to help take care of them when they’re sick.
Unfortunately, colleges can be a hotbed for germs given that so many students live in close quarters. “When children go to college, they’re going to be in an environment where there’s likely to be a lot of exposure to many different infections at the same time from people from all over the world,” infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They don’t have their parents around prodding them, so they need to have some kind of knowledge of what they’re going to face and the best actions to take.”
The odds are pretty high that your child is going to get sick at some point, so making sure they’re aware of the symptoms of certain health conditions — especially more serious ones — and the right things to do if they suspect they may have developed one are crucial.
Among the more serious ones that should be on your child’s radar are meningitis, mononucleosis (aka mono), mumps, and the flu, Ashanti Woods, MD, a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. These conditions tend to “pick on” younger adults because they’re easy to transmit and thrive in close living quarters, he says. Couple that with the fact that kids in this age group tend to share utensils and drinks, don’t always follow good hand hygiene, and tend to be physically affectionate, and they may be more likely than the general population to be exposed, Woods says.
Here’s what you should tell your child about each:
Although the disease isn’t incredibly common, especially thanks to the rising popularity of the meningococcal vaccine, it can happen. “There’s not a general recommendation that every college student be vaccinated against meningitis B, but many colleges recommend it because there are cases that will occur,” Adalja says. “Meningitis can be deadly, and we’ve seen headline-grabbing outbreaks at colleges.”
Meningitis is an inflammation of the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord that’s usually caused by a bacterial or viral infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms include fever, headache, stiff neck, vomiting, nausea, sensitivity to light, and confusion.
If your child has symptoms of meningitis, they should put on a face mask (if they have one available) and get to the nearest emergency room — not the student health center, Woods says. Again, meningitis can be deadly and tends to move fast, so it’s not something you want your child sitting on.
This is often called the “kissing disease” because the virus that causes mononucleosis is transmitted through saliva, per the Mayo Clinic. While people can get it through kissing, they can also contract mono after being exposed to the cough or sneeze of an infected person, or by sharing a glass or utensils with someone who has the condition.
Mono typically causes symptoms such as a sore throat, fatigue, low-grade fever, stomach pain, and swollen tonsils, Woods says, but these symptoms can be similar to those of strep throat. If your child has these symptoms, they’re probably okay to get checked out at their student health center first, Woods says. Mono can cause serious complications such as enlargement of the spleen and liver inflammation, and a person with the infection can be laid up for a while. “Mono can make someone feel bad for a month,” Adalja says. “It can be very disruptive in college.”
The influenza virus is usually seasonal (with most cases occurring in the fall and winter), but it tends to spread pretty rapidly in colleges thanks to close living quarters, Adalja notes. The flu can cause symptoms such as a fever, cough, muscle aches, sore throat, runny nose, headaches, and fatigue, according to the CDC. If your child develops these symptoms, you’ll want them to go to their student health center, ideally within the first 48 hours of developing symptoms so that they can get on an antiviral medication to shorten the course of the illness and lower the risk of complications, Woods suggests. And, of course, encouraging your child to get their annual flu vaccine can help, too, Adalja says.
The disease is covered under the MMR vaccine that your teen likely got as a child, but it’s still possible to contract mumps in adulthood even if they’ve been vaccinated against it, Adalja says. “We’ve seen many mumps outbreaks in universities in the past,” he says. “It can transmit pretty easily.” While the MMR vaccine isn’t perfect, getting vaccinated against the mumps lowers the odds that your child will contract the infection, and reduces the severity that they may experience.
Mumps is a contagious disease caused by a virus that can bring on fever, headache, muscle aches, tiredness, and loss of appetite, according to the CDC. Most people will also have a swelling of their salivary glands, which causes puffy cheeks and a tender, swollen jaw.
If your child thinks they may have mumps, they should visit their student health center, Adalja says. And, if mumps is circulating in their school, it’s generally recommended that they receive a third dose of the MMR vaccine as a booster, Adalja suggests.
You’ll also want to let your child know that they should always seek medical attention ASAP if they develop any of the following, per Woods:
- A severe headache that doesn’t go away after taking Tylenol or Motrin
- Blurry or double vision
- Tongue swelling or difficulty swallowing
- A sore throat that lasts more than four days
- Neck stiffness that limits their ability to turn their head in all directions
- Shortness of breath or wheezing
- Sharp chest pains near the area of the heart
- Vomiting or diarrhea that lasts more than 36 hours
- Any new rash that lasts more than 48 hours
As a whole, your child is more likely to contract more common illnesses such as a cold while they’re at school, David Cutler, MD, a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. But, Cutler says, it’s important for them to know that they should seek medical help when their symptoms aren’t getting better — or if they start getting worse.
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