You dropped off your child at college a month or two ago. You are finally getting over the daily shock of them being out of your house and you get that inevitable text: “UGH. I am soooo sick! Literally cannot get out of bed today!!” You wonder – how did this happen so quickly and how much will it cost to deliver them some homemade chicken soup? Rest assured, there are thousands of other parents out there getting similar texts and calls, and thousands of college freshmen who are sick and sniffling their way to Student Health the first months of school.
Five Reasons Why Your College Freshman is Sick
Every college freshman is undergoing a stressful transition. Even the ones that seem completely happy and well-adjusted. Everything around them is new and this may be the first time they’ve ever shared a bedroom with someone else – and in most cases it’s a complete stranger and a very small room.
They are away from familiar faces and places. They are expending a lot of energy trying to make new friends and navigating around an unfamiliar campus. On the surface they may seem perfectly fine, but subconsciously, the seismic changes they are experiencing are at least a ten on the Richter scale, and this has a definite effect on their immune system.
The link between stress and illness has been confirmed repeatedly. “Stressors lasting from days to years are associated with suppression of a number of different immune functions, including protein production, cell production, and cell function.” (Segerstrom & Miller, 2004)
2. Lack of sleep
If there’s a college student in existence consistently getting over seven hours of sleep per night, I’d like to meet them and congratulate them on their outstanding time management skills. Freshmen are especially susceptible to negligent sleep habits. They are staying up until the wee hours of the morning far more often than we wish they were. Whether it’s due to studying, socializing, or adjusting to the sounds and schedule of a roommate, they are most likely suffering from sleep deprivation – another immune system destroyer.
Dr. Kathryn Orzech, Ph.D., of the Bradley Hospital Sleep Research Laboratory, has studied adolescents and their sleep habits. Her conclusion in the Journal of Sleep Research (2013): “There are short-term outcomes, like more acute illness among shorter-sleeping adolescents, that don’t require waiting months, years or decades to show up.”
3. Novel environment
Whether your child is just a couple hours from home, or on the other side of the country, their bodies are suddenly adjusting to new indoor and outdoor allergens. Those beautiful trees and grasses on the picturesque quad, and the air pollutants in a new city could very well be irritating to their sinuses and eyes. Indoors, the carpeting, paint and tiny creatures we don’t like to think about could be doing the same thing. There’s also a slight chance your child is not washing their bedding as regularly as was done at home, so those sheets and pillow cases are providing safe harbor for pollen and air particulates.
4. Hygiene Issues
It’s a given that dorm life with communal bathrooms means less handwashing and many more common surfaces that are being touched by hundreds of kids. Even with daily cleaning of the dorm bathrooms, there are a lot of germs being passed around via door handles, stair railings, elevator buttons and perhaps a few red Solo cups. Dr. Thomas Clark, MD, MPH, a meningitis expert at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, explained in 2013 why infectious disease outbreaks seem to happen so often on campuses. “It really has to do with sustained patterns for social interactions among college students. Really close contact, living in dorms are especially known to put kids at risk”.
5. Food and Exercise
Campus food has greatly improved in the last 20 years and there are many nutritional dishes being offered to your student. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always mean they are choosing the best food options. They are probably not getting the daily required servings of vegetables and fruits that they should be consuming, and if they are not taking supplements, they could be deficient in important minerals and probiotics that bolster their immunity. Pizza and beer are still a thing.
According to the Spring 2016 National College Health Assessment Survey, 60% of college students reported they usually eat only 1-2 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, about half of what they should be getting according to USDA dietary guidelines. As for exercise, your child might be walking around more to get to their classes, but may not be making the time for sustained aerobic exercise on most days of the week, which is a great boost to their immune system.
What can be done if a college student is sick:
If it’s more than just the common cold, and over-the-counter medications and rest don’t quickly improve your child’s condition, they should seek out help at their Student Health center. Issues like bacterial infections need to be addressed promptly and symptoms of illness that last longer than two weeks should definitely be investigated.
If you suspect your child could be suffering from new allergies, it would be helpful to have them see a local allergist/immunologist for testing. Talk with them about simple habits to adopt if they are not already doing so: increased hand washing, wiping down common dorm room surfaces with disinfectant wipes, washing bedding and towels on a regular basis, getting a flu shot, exercising regularly, drinking enough water and eating with their health in mind.
The importance of good sleep cannot be stressed enough.
Encourage your child to explore a new stress reduction activity as well. Yoga, meditation, deep breathing and calming music are all easily accessible from smart phone apps. Two free yoga apps that I love are Yoga101 and iYoga+. A less stressed student is one who is much better able to fight off any kind of challenge to their immune system.
And yes, Mom, a local delivery of hot chicken (or vegan) soup is always a welcome option if they can’t come home for a weekend of good rest, healthy food, clean sheets and TLC.
More by Marybeth Bock:
Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul; 130(4):601-30.
Kathryn M. Orzech, Christine Acebo, Ronald Seifer, David Barker, Mary A. Carskadon. Sleep patterns are associated with common illness in adolescents. Journal of Sleep Research, 2013; DOI: 10.1111/jsr.12096
American College Health Association. American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment II: Reference Group Executive Summary Spring 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association; 2016.