Back to school health: college edition

Tips on how to stay mentally and physically healthy during that first year away at college.
Dr. John Steever, the director of special programs at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, gives advice on staying healthy your freshman year of college. Photo: ISTOCK

Going away to college is a rite of passage in a young adult’s life. In addition to embarking on four years of study, students are forming new relationships (friends, classmates, professors, roommates and romantic partners) and picking up new interests. And away from the watchful eyes of parents, students begin to learn the art of “adulting” — managing their own time and looking after their own physical health and well-being.

 

While this new phase of life can be exhilarating, it’s not without challenges. Being on your own for the first time can be a shock to the system, adding homesickness, loneliness and stress on top of 15 credits of coursework. We asked Dr. John Steever, the director of special programs at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center and assistant professor of pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, for some advice for students undergoing this exciting and sometimes turbulent time.

 

Which vaccines are important for college students to have before heading back to campus?

 

The most important vaccines are the meningitis vaccine for A,C,Y and W (menactra or menveo), the meningitis vaccine for B (Bexsero), a tetanus booster (e.g., Adacel), the HPV vaccine series (e.g., Gardasil), the Hepatitis B series, the Hepatitis A series and documentation of either the varicella vaccine or history of chicken pox.

 

Are there any health issues common to college-age students?

The most important health issues are around substance use/ abuse, exposure to STDs including HIV, pregnancy prevention. Depression is important to monitor for. The stress of college can bring out self-injurious behaviors including cutting, suicide attempts, and a flare of eating disorder behavior if the patient had previously struggled with those issues. Mono and Meningitis are rare, but if a student is feeling sick, they should seek medical evaluation.

How can first-year students deal with homesickness?

Students can reach out to other students in their dorm and work to create a supportive environment at school. Frequent short contact with parents and friends from home can be important. Some students like to communicate via email or phone. Skype may also be an important way for students to stay connected with family and friends. Dorm resident advisers should keep an eye out for students who aren’t adjusting to dorm life and watch for excessive sadness that some may try to explain away by mere “homesickness”, but is actually depression, which can be serious and can lead to suicide attempts.

You're sharing showers, living space, sleeping spaces. What is important to know about staying healthy when you're in a communal living situation?

Students should take standard health precautions.  Avoid sharing of cups and intimate utensils, such as toothbrushes.  Good hand-washing is always important to help prevent the spread of cough/cold/congestion. Self-care is important with regular sleep, regular exercise and stress reduction. 

 
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