September 4, 2018
"Mom? My throat really hurts and I don't know what to do," you say as you scan the shelves at Walgreens for another bag of cough drops – off-brand, of course, because you just spent your last five dollars on 15 packs of microwaveable ramen noodles – #priorities. College is great, but when it comes to bellyaches, sore throats, and other infections, mom still knows best. So for those times when mom is 500 miles away – or just busy making your old room into her new yoga studio – here’s an easy-to-understand study guide with a few of the most common college health concerns.
1. Men·in·gi·tis, [men-in-jahy-tis], noun
- Definition: Meningitis is the swelling of the protective membranes of the brain and spinal cord caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
- What to look for: Stiff or painful neck, fever, chills, nausea or vomiting, severe headache, sensitivity to light.
- What to do: If you suspect you might have meningitis, visit a healthcare professional right away. Treatment of meningitis depends on the type of meningitis – bacterial, viral, or other – and a medical professional will be able to help determine the cause so you can get back on your feet.
Meningitis is one of the most common infectious diseases that you may be exposed to as a college student. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that the risk for meningitis in college students is slightly higher than the risk in other teens who do not attend college.1 That's because meningitis is an infectious disease that spreads easily in places where people – or students – gather, like a college campus, dorm, or even dining hall. It's so important for incoming college students to make sure they're up to date on vaccinations – and why many states actually require proof that you're up to date before starting your first semester.
MedExpress Pro Tip: Are you due for a meningitis booster? Think back to your super sweet sixteen. If you received the meningitis vaccine before your 16th birthday, you may need to visit a healthcare professional for a booster before you pack your bags for school.
So what exactly is meningitis, you ask? The word "meningitis" comes from the word "meninges," which are the protective membranes around the brain and spinal cord. When an infection in another part of the body spreads to the meninges, these protective membranes swell. It's this inflammation that causes meningitis.
It's important to understand that there are different types of meningitis. The most common are bacterial and viral meningitis. Bacterial meningitis, the most serious type of meningitis especially among college students, is caused by bacteria that infect the fluid around the brain and spinal cord. While most people completely recover from bacterial meningitis thanks to antibiotic treatment, the infection can cause serious complications and can be deadly if not treated quickly. Symptoms of bacterial meningitis usually appear over the course of a few days, so if your roommate, sorority sister, or study buddy has been diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, keep a close eye out over the next three to seven days for signs you may have it, too – like stiff neck, nausea, or sudden fever.
Many people with viral meningitis, on the other hand, recover completely on their own. However, it's still really important to visit a healthcare professional as soon as any type of meningitis is suspected. That's because without testing, it can be tough to decipher between viral, bacterial, and other types of meningitis. The symptoms are very similar – fever, headache, stiff neck, nausea, and vomiting – and it's important to quickly rule out more serious types of meningitis.
Other types of meningitis are far rarer and much less common on college campuses. These include fungal meningitis, caused by fungi, parasitic meningitis, caused by various parasites, amebic meningitis, caused by a microscopic ameba, and non-infectious meningitis, which is caused by certain cancers, lupus, drugs, or head injury.
2. In·flu·en·za, [in-floo-en-zuh], noun
- Definition: Influenza, also known as flu, is a contagious viral infection that affects the upper respiratory system.
- What to look for: Fever, exhaustion, severe body aches, cough, head congestion, sore throat.
- What to do: If diagnosed within the first 48 hours after the start of symptoms, flu can often be treated with antiviral medications like Tamiflu, so it's important to visit a healthcare professional as soon as possible. On your way home from the doctor's office, pick up some chicken noodle soup to soothe that scratchy sore throat. Try running a washcloth under some warm water and placing on your forehead and cheek bones – this can help relieve sinus pressure and decongest your airways for easier breathing. Get plenty of rest and skip after-class study sessions or intramural sports practices to avoid spreading it to others.
Flu is highly contagious, so it's no surprise that it's common among college students who are sharing drinks (just water, mom!) and living in close quarters where frequently disinfecting door knobs is, well let's be honest, not high on your to-do list. It spreads so easily because the virus that causes the flu can be found in the tiny droplets we spray when we talk, sneeze, or cough. Plus, we can be contagious before any symptoms even begin, so it's hard to know who may be a carrier of the virus before it's too late. One way to protect against coming down with a nasty case of the flu is to get an annual flu shot. It's also important to practice healthy hygiene every day by washing your hands before every meal, wiping down frequently touched surfaces like keyboards and door knobs, and covering coughs and sneezes.
3. Mon·o·nu·cle·o·sis, [mon-uh-noo-klee-oh-sis, -nyoo-], noun
- Definition: Known for its nickname, the Kissing Disease, mononucleosis, or mono, is an infectious disease caused by the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV).
- What to look for: Extreme fatigue, high fever, swollen glands, a rash, weakness, body aches.
- What to do: While there is no known cure for mono, it's important to visit a healthcare professional to be tested for the virus. Once diagnosed, make sure you get plenty of rest and avoid sports and other physical activities until cleared by a medical professional. Your healthcare provider may recommend taking over-the-counter pain relievers to help with body aches and anti-inflammatories to reduce fever.
The mono virus is spread through saliva – hence its nickname, the Kissing Disease – so you can imagine why it can be very common among college students. While kissing is one way you can be exposed to the virus, it's just as likely that you can get it from sharing drinks with a pal or taking a bite out of a lunch buddy's pulled pork sandwich.
So, what differentiates mono from the common cold? Even though symptoms may mimic a cold at first, mono is a lot different. For example, symptoms of mono can last up to one or two months – much longer than your average case of the sniffles. So if that "cold" doesn't start to improve after one or two weeks, it's a good idea to get checked for mono.
Even though experts haven't found a magic cure for mono quite yet, it's still really important to get tested because you'll need to make certain lifestyle changes to stay healthy while you recover. For instance, you should completely refrain from drinking alcohol while you have mono. That's because mono affects the liver and renders it unable to properly break down alcohol. There's also a chance that your spleen may enlarge when you have mono, so it's recommended that you sit out of any strenuous physical activity and contact sports until you're fully recovered. Any bumps, bruises, and falls may cause an enlarged spleen to rupture, which can be a big problem.
The best way to get back on your feet after mono is to eat healthy and rest up. Take every opportunity to nap that you can – a dream come true for college students!
4. Gas·tro·en·ter·i·tis, [gas-troh-en-tuh-rahy-tis], noun
- Definition: Better known as stomach virus, gastroenteritis is the inflammation of the stomach and intestines caused by a viral infection.
- What to look for: Diarrhea, vomiting, chills, fever, loss of appetite, headache.
- What to do: Be sure to drink plenty of fluids and rest. Taking it easy for a few days can make a world of difference – plus, staying in bed decreases the risk of spreading the unpleasant bug around to other classmates and dorm buddies. Try the BRAT diet – bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast. These foods are easy to digest and can help replenish your body of much-needed nutrients, like potassium, carbs, and sugar. If you start to feel lightheaded or are unable to keep liquids down for more than 24 hours, you may need to visit a healthcare provider like MedExpress for intravenous (IV) fluids in order to rehydrate the body properly. Also, watch closely for high fever associated with abdominal pain, which may indicate a more serious illness and should be evaluated by a healthcare professional immediately.
About the Stomach Virus:
College students often fancy themselves independent – until you wake up in the middle of the night with painful belly cramps and nausea that can only mean one thing: the dreaded stomach virus. For many, the stomach virus means hours spent on the bathroom floor, which sadly feels much colder when mom isn't there to rub your back and hold your hair.
The stomach virus is often mislabeled as the stomach "flu." However, the stomach virus isn't flu at all. Unlike flu, which is an infection of the upper respiratory system, the stomach virus is an infection of the stomach and intestines most commonly caused by viruses like the norovirus, rotavirus, and adenovirus. The stomach virus typically lasts 24-48 hours and occurs more frequently during the colder months from November to April when people spend more time indoors – and often inconveniently right around the time you'll be cramming for your finals before winter break.
Why is it so common among college students? Like many other bugs we've talked about, the stomach virus spreads very easily from person to person. Many college students have shared bathrooms, making it especially easy to pick up the stomach virus by touching sinks or stalls that were previously used by someone who is sick. You can prevent against the virus by washing your hands frequently and before eating – especially if someone in your dorm, study group, or class is sick. Equip your backpack with antibacterial wipes and alcohol-based hand sanitizer and use them regularly. Get plenty of rest and opt for healthy, well-balanced meals (that means no Captain Crunch for dinner) in the cafeteria to bolster a strong immune system.
5. Sexually Transmitted Diseases, (noun)
- Definition: A sexually transmitted disease (STD) is a disease or infection that is transmitted through sexual contact.
- What to look for: Many people with an STD will experience no symptoms at all. However, the most common symptoms for both men and women include blistering, discharge, burning, or itching around the genital area, a rash, and painful or burning urination.
- What to do: If you suspect you have an STD, it's important to get tested right away. A healthcare professional can help you determine an appropriate course of action and can recommend treatment options based on the specific diagnosis. Also, tell your sexual partners to get tested, too.
According to the CDC, "nearly half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) diagnosed each year are among young people aged 15–24 years."2 You read that right. Teens and college-age adults make up the majority of new STD cases each year. That's why it's important to have the right tools and education to protect yourself from some of the pressures and new experiences that come with college life.
Chlamydia, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus (HPV), and syphilis are among the most common STDs seen on college campuses today. While many of these STDs, like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be cured with medication over time, some have long-term health effects that can have lasting consequences, especially for women and their newborn babies. HPV, for example, may be a life-long disease. It can be managed with medication and topical treatments, but may lead to serious complications like cervical cancer.
College is certainly a time for trying new things – but it's important to do so safely. The best way to prevent STDs is to abstain from sexual activity. If you are sexually active, always use protection like condoms and avoid having multiple sexual partners. Also, make it a habit to ask your doctor about STDs and get tested during your annual check-up every year. STD testing may also be done at MedExpress.
1 CDC: Community Settings as a Risk Factor. Last updated June 7, 2017. Accessed August 27, 2018.
2 CDC: College Health and Safety. Last updated August 9, 2016. Accessed August 27, 2018.