By Jessica Tobacman, Special to the Tribune
July 25, 2012
Attention, freshmen: You will likely pick up more than knowledge and new friends when you start college.
There's a good chance you'll at least catch a cold from living in the tight quarters of a dormitory, physicians and students say.
"The thing (about) tight quarters is an increased number of exposures (to communicable diseases) for young adults. There's a slightly different infection risk level," said Dr. Anita Chandra, a pediatrician and an instructor of clinical pediatrics atNorthwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine.
The common cold is the most frequent illness that students catch after they move into dorms, followed by strep throat, the flu, mononucleosis and meningitis, said Dr. Sagina Hanjrah, a physician and professor of family medicine at the University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System. Strep throat is a bacterial infection that irritates and inflames the throat; mononucleosis can be spread through saliva, leading to a sore throat or fever, fatigue and weakness; and meningitis, by far the most serious of the three, can lead to brain damage or death. Meningitis symptoms can include a fever and other problems associated with a cold, and a stiff neck.
"I've actually gotten sick quite a lot. I take a lot of Advil, drink a lot of tea, eat a lot of soup," said Prathima Radhakrishnan, who will be a third-year student at the University of Chicago this fall.
The stress of starting college also can make freshmen susceptible to illness, said Dr. Margaret McMahon, assistant professor of internal medicine and pediatrics at Loyola University Health System in Maywood.
"There are new stresses about going to college and moving into the dorms. Both are big changes in your routine. (Both stress and lack of sleep) can increase your susceptibility to colds," McMahon said.
Chandra recommends that incoming freshmen get immunization shots.
"A lot of colleges are requiring proof of immunizations for freshmen. I strongly recommend getting the pertussis, meningitis and HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccines, and the influenza vaccine every year," Chandra said. The HPV vaccine can prevent cervical cancer in women.
Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a bacterial and very contagious disease, named for its symptoms of uncontrollable coughing. "Wash your hands well, and if you haven't gotten the vaccine, get it," she said.
Freshmen in dorms can also protect themselves from catching colds, strep throat and the flu by washing their hands frequently, especially if they have just used a tissue; and coughing or sneezing into the bend of their elbows, instead of covering their mouths, doctors say. Students also should avoid sharing drinking glasses or utensils when ill and avoid having close or prolonged contact with anyone who is sick, Hanjrah said.
Freshmen should make sure they get enough rest, the physicians said.
"Sleep is a huge way to stave off problems that will affect you in subtle ways," said Dr. Alex Lickerman, assistant vice president for student health and counseling services at the U of C. "Sometimes, getting normal sleep does not buy you an advantage, but prevents you from experiencing many disadvantages."
Getting enough rest helps students to keep their energy levels and their moods up, control their weight, concentrate in class and remember information better, Lickerman said.
"It is a really simple intervention. Sleep is a critical part of good health. It's very easy to cut into it. Over time, sleep deprivation compromises your life quality," he said.
Yusef Al-Jarani, who will be a second-year student in the fall at the U of C, said he took a quick break from classes when he became ill as a freshman.
"I got a cold my first quarter at the university, and was fine the rest of the year. I had brought medications with me from home. I took a day off from school, and ate and drink a lot from the dining hall, a lot of juice and soup," he said.
Freshmen also should take care of their emotional health, McMahon said.
"Pay close attention to getting the support you need," she said. "Family and friends should pay attention to changes in behavior or personality. It's never a bad idea to touch base with your primary care physician, on midterm break or sooner."
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