How to Prevent Illness and Cope with Being Sick at College

A girl blows her nose when she's sick at school.

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No one enjoys being sick, but when you’re a college student, it’s going to happen sooner or later. Living in close quarters and sharing communal bathrooms, not to mention spending all your time in the same four(ish) buildings on campus, makes it easy for bacteria and viruses to travel from person to person in no time. Roommate has a cold? Watch out, you’re a sitting duck. Boyfriend has mono? Stay away! Your study partner is out with the flu? Find a new one for the next week. Getting sick in college is no joke, especially considering how fast-paced the classes are. Missing a single class can set you way behind; missing two can feel catastrophic.

There are some steps you can take to avoid getting sick, but flu season is upon us and if you’re not already vaccinated, you could be up a creek! Find out if anywhere local (CVS, Walgreens, the grocery store, your campus health clinic) is still offering flu vaccines. The CDC recommends getting vaccinated by the end of October, but also acknowledges that getting vaccinated anytime is better than not getting vaccinated at all. Most insurance plans will cover preventative flu vaccines, but if you’re not covered, the vaccine only runs about $40 retail.

The flu isn’t the only thing that you need to worry about at college: meningitis (which you have probably already been vaccinated against), mononucleosis, the common cold, strep throat, and any other number of viruses are common. Aside from avoiding people who are sick like the literal plague, there are a few other preventative steps you can take to stay healthy:

  • When you’re packing for college (or the next time you’re at the grocery store) make sure you buy a medicine cabinet’s worth of over-the-counter medication to store in your room. You just need the basics: pain relievers and fever reducers, cough medicine, cough drops, antacids, decongestants, cold and flu medication (something like DayQuil), allergy medicine, and a thermometer. It’s not a bad idea to have tweezers, Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, and alcohol pads too, though they won’t do much against the flu. If you build up a collection, you won’t have to run to the store (or have a friend do it for you) to start medicating when you feel sick.
  • Don’t share cups, forks, straws, plates, etc., with anyone, even if they seem healthy. This is a quick and surefire way to introduce their germs to your system. Even the healthiest immune system is at a disadvantage when there’s a direct attack.
  • For the same reason as above, don’t share toiletries like toothpaste and lip gloss, and certainly don’t share toothbrushes.
  • Eat plenty of immune-boosting foods. Yogurt and kombucha are full of probiotics, which are great for your digestive and immune systems. Both green and black tea are full of antioxidants, though green tea may be better for you. Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, etc.) are full of vitamin C, which can prevent complications of a cold or the flu from developing, reduce inflammation, and protect against free radicals. In addition to eating immune-boosting foods, you should be sure to stay hydrated.
  • Get enough sleep. When you’re exhausted, your immune system loses effectiveness, meaning you’re more likely to fall ill. Aim for eight hours of sleep each night.
  • If you’ve been sick recently, you have the potential to reinfect yourself if you don’t take a few precautions. Wash your sheets, wipe down surfaces with disinfectant wipes (door handles, your bedside table, and light switches), and toss out your toothbrush. It’s not worth it to get sick a second time just because you didn’t clean up after yourself. Even if you haven’t been sick recently, wipe down your keyboard, mouse, and phone. You touch these every day and they often harbor bacteria.
  • If you’re already in the habit, continue to exercise regularly. If you’re not, start. Moderate exercise, aside from being good for weight management, cardiovascular health, and bone health, can also improve your mood, help you sleep, and boost your energy level. If that’s not enough, exercise is theorized to:
    • Flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways
    • Cause changes in antibodies and white blood cells that may lead to earlier detection of illness
    • Raise your body temperature enough to fight infection and prevent bacteria from growing
    • Slow the release of stress hormones
A student is sick at college.

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What happens if you get sick though? All of the precautions in the world won’t prevent the common cold completely, and even being vaccinated against the flu only protects you from certain strands. If you’re one of the unlucky ones who gets sick during the semester, you can console yourself with the fact that it probably won’t last too long. That being said, I went to the hospital twice during college (mononucleosis and an appendectomy both had me there overnight). Hopefully you’ll only be dealing with 24-hour viruses and colds. Here’s what you need to do if you’re laid out.

  • Write your professor if you’re not going to make it to class. Generally, they’ll be pretty receptive to your self-diagnosis. After all, you know well enough if you’re going to vomit or pass out if you have to sit through a 90-minute lecture. If you have a doctor’s note, you’ll be in even better shape. Email your professor as soon as you know that you’re not going to be in class and ask about missed assignments and upcoming office hours. If they know that you’re invested in making up the material, they’re more likely to be lenient on deadlines. That said, if you’re going to miss a test and you don’t feel outrageously awful, get yourself out of bed and go. If I can take a chemistry midterm hours before being rushed to the emergency room for an appendectomy, so can you.
  • Ask a friend or classmate to take notes and email them to you. If you’re too sick to make it to class, you still need to be proactive about getting your hands on the material that was covered. Text a friend or classmate ahead of time and ask if they’ll photograph or scan their notes and send them to you after class. Be sure you copy them into your notebook by hand; the mere act of writing the words down will help you better remember what you’ve written.
  • Don’t push yourself. Sleep is the best thing that you can do for yourself right now. Instead of trying to go to class, lift weights at the gym, and meet up with friends for a study group (all of which will make other people sick!), tuck yourself into bed. Let your body rest as much as it needs to. Between catching up on assignments and classwork and trying to get well, you have plenty to keep you busy in your weakened state. Pushing yourself to do more will just prolong your illness and make you more miserable in the meantime.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Water, water and more water! Fluids flush your system and regulate your body temperature, and your mind functions best when it’s hydrated. Skip the caffeinated beverages (and certainly skip the alcohol) and drink clear fluids like tea, juice, broth, and water. Aim for eight glasses a day, or more if you’re experiencing symptoms that dehydrate you. Sip room temperature water slowly if you’re worried about throwing up. If you can handle it, fruit (especially citrus) is a good source of fluid as well.
  • Visit the campus clinic. If it’s been a day or two and you’re sure it’s not just a cold (you know your body best), head to the campus health clinic. While the offerings may be less than at your general practitioner’s office, you can still get a strep test and have many prescriptions filled. The nurses will also be able to tell you if you need to see a doctor or go to the hospital. Remember to get a note so you can prove to your teacher that you missed class for a legitimate reason.
  • If you’re given a prescription, take all of the medication. It’s tempting to stop taking antibiotics as soon as you start to feel well, but it’s important that you take the entire course of drugs that you were prescribed. Stopping early can lead to a relapse and, more frighteningly, contribute to the growth of antibiotic-resistant superbugs.
  • Call your family. Nobody can make you feel better than your family. Plus, your mom or dad might feel sorry enough for you that you’ll get a care package out of it!

If you get really sick and need to be hospitalized, make sure that the dean of students or your academic advisor is notified. These people will be your advocates for the duration of your inability to attend class or complete assignments. They’ll talk to your professors and make sure that you get appropriate extensions on all work. Everyone at your school wants you to succeed, just like everyone understands that illnesses happen. No one wants to penalize you for a hospitalization.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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