5 common health concerns college students face — and how to handle them

·6 min read
College students need to be able to recognize when they're having a health issue — and take the initiative to do something about it. (Photo: Getty Images)
College students need to be able to recognize when they're having a health issue — and take the initiative to do something about it. (Photo: Getty Images)

Going away to college is a big change on so many levels. But it's also the first time that students are largely responsible for their own health — and that can be a big adjustment. 

"They’re dealing with a new environment with a lot of stressors that they probably haven't had to deal with before," Dr. Julia Blank, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "They're being independent for the first time, and having to make a lot of decisions, from things [such as] what to eat and how to deal with schedules to bigger issues like their health."

One of the biggest transitions is going from a pediatric to an adult health care model, "which involves independently presenting for medical care without significant parental involvement," Dr. Amanda Rajendran, family medicine physician and medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Student Health Center at Northern Illinois University, tells Yahoo Life. In other words, students need to be able to recognize when they're having a health issue — and take the initiative to do something about it. 

Students will also need to make personal decisions that can impact their overall health, Dr. Sophia Tolliver, family medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. These decisions, she says, "may lead to a healthy or unhealthy lifestyle."

Whether you've sent a college student off to school or are a student yourself, doctors say there are a few important health concerns to be aware of. Here's what to look out for — and how to take action.

Anxiety and depression

Getting adjusted to a college environment is huge, and there are a lot of factors that can take a toll on mental health, Rajendran says. "Scheduling, attending classes, taking tests and managing a busy social schedule can cause anxiety and depression for some," she says. "The expectations of friends and family and even of yourself can lead to self-doubt if not met. Comparisons amongst peers can cause one to doubt their worthiness, their abilities."

Rajendran recommends that students "have a strong sense of who they are and what the ultimate goal is — to graduate." She also stresses the importance of "moderation," noting that "it is easy to get off track with extracurricular and recreational distractions."

Blank recommends that students be aware of their mental health options, noting that there are usually counseling centers on-site. And, if you're already engaged in therapy, she suggests finding a licensed therapist in your area, if you've moved to a new state. "Licensure requirements say that therapists can't provide therapy across state boundaries," Blank says. 

Meningitis

Meningitis is swelling of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's often caused by a bacterial or viral infection, and it can be deadly. 

"College students are at risk because they live in close quarters and often engage in activities that increase their risk for transmission of the disease," Tolliver says. While infections are rare, she points out that getting the meningococcal vaccine will lower your risk of developing the condition. In fact, many schools require this vaccine, Rajendran notes. 

Mononucleosis

Mononucleosis, usually just known as "mono," is an illness caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. It's usually spread through bodily fluids, especially saliva, according to the CDC. Mono causes a range of symptoms, including:

  • extreme fatigue

  • fever

  • sore throat

  • head and body aches

  • swollen lymph nodes in the neck and armpits

  • swollen liver or spleen or both

  • rash

To lower your risk of contracting mono — which is common in college environments — Blank recommends practicing careful hygiene, washing your hands frequently and avoiding sharing utensils. If you develop symptoms of mono, contact your healthcare provider for a diagnosis. Just know this: There is no specific treatment for mono. Instead, doctors typically recommend that you drink plenty of fluids, get a lot of rest and avoid sports until you fully recover.

STIs

"A majority of college students are sexually active and, with that comes the opportunity for encounters for the exchange of bodily fluids that are not always protected," Tolliver says. That can lead to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). "We commonly the diagnosis of chlamydia and gonorrhea and other STIs," Tolliver says.

However, the most common STI in the U.S. is HPV — more than 40 million Americans have HPV, many of whom are in their late teens and early 20s, according to the CDC. Most HPV infections go away on their own; however, some strains of HPV can cause genital warts or cervical cancer.

STIs can be prevented, Tolliver points out. "If you are having sex, have protected sex to prevent contracting unwanted disease and symptoms," she says. However, if you develop a burning sensation when you use the bathroom, experience abnormal vaginal or penile discharge, notice unusual bumps around your genitals or feel like something isn't quite right down there, Tolliver recommends seeing your doctor immediately to get evaluated and treated. Some STIs can lead to permanent issues if they're not treated, making it crucial to seek care.

Also, unlike most STIs, there is a vaccine for HPV. The CDC recommends that preteen girls and boys get vaccinated at age 11 or 12; however, the two-shot series can be started as young as age 9 and up through 26 years of age.

Cold, flu, and COVID-19

Respiratory viruses commonly circulate on campuses, Blank says. And, while many colleges now have COVID-19 vaccination requirements, not all do. 

"Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish a cold, the flu, mono or even COVID-19," Rajendran says. "Things like runny nose, sore throat, mild nasal congestion and dry cough historically could be managed at home with rest and over-the-counter medications. However, these days COVID needs to be ruled out, and even the mildest respiratory symptoms require a test."

Most campuses have prioritized COVID-related appointments at their student health services and easy, fast-track testing options you can use to (hopefully) rule out COVID-19.

When it comes to trying to distinguish between a cold and the flu, Blank says that the flu is "generally more severe," adding: "You're usually not going to have systemic symptoms like fever and body aches with a cold — but you often will with the flu."

To lower you risk of getting sick, Blank recommends getting vaccinated against the flu and COVID-19. Wearing a mask in public, practicing good hand hygiene, and social distancing when you can will also help, Tolliver says. "College can be a virtual breeding ground of infection if the proper preventive strategies are not employed," she says. 

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