December 3, 2018
Against all odds, you’ve made it to the end of the semester. Through either sheer determination or dumb luck, you’ve (hopefully) passed your midterms and are staring down the home stretch, straight at finals and winter break right after.
Unfortunately, only two things stand between you enjoying your winter break: passing your finals, which is all on you, and the slew of seasonal sicknesses bouncing around campus. And avoiding the illness du jour is more up to luck than your final grades…or so you would think.
While your friends might be suffering from the flu, a common cold, or other infections that tend to reappear every winter, there are several steps you can take to not only survive the end of the semester without needing to beg your professors for a sick day, but also maybe make finals an easier time.
Check out these five tips before you dive back into your next overdue assignment.
1. Get Enough Sleep
Sleep, or a lack of it, has a huge impact on both learning and your overall wellbeing. It’s widely known that most adults – and yes, as a college student, you are considered an adult – need between seven and eight hours of sleep a night, though we all know you’re probably getting less than that.1
Some side-effects of sleep deprivation are well-known. College campuses around the country are full of people who are irritable, chronically drowsy, inattentive, and propped up by various amounts of caffeine depending on how early their first class is.
One of the best ways to get your body ready to fight off whatever sickness your roommate is coming down with is to get a few good nights’ sleep! Studies show that people who skimp out on quality sleep are more likely to get sick when exposed to viruses, like the common cold or influenza, something no finals-bound college student wants to bear.2 This is because the immune system uses sleep to beef up on proteins called cytokines, which are necessary to fight infections and keep you in tip-top shape. Additionally, lack of sleep can lead to reduced levels of important infection-fighting antibodies, leaving your immune system weak in the face of cold and flu season.2
Yes, it sounds impossible, but getting a good night’s sleep while in college is not science fiction. Here are a few ways to cheat insomnia:
- Try to keep wake and sleep times consistent. That means on weekends too!
- Only lie down when you’re actually sleepy. No more 2:00 pm naps because you have a gap in your schedule and don’t feel like doing laundry.
- If you end up needing a nap (we’ve all been there), try to limit your sleep time to an hour or less.
- Use your bed only for sleep activities. Eating meals and using your bed as a couch can damage the association your brain can make between your bed and sleep.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and food for at least two hours before bedtime.
While you may just be tired because you were up all night watching Netflix, sleep deprivation may be a sign of underlying health problems. Can’t shake that “I’m exhausted” mood? See a doctor to make sure your health is A-OK.
2. Clean Up
Whether it’s because of an overwhelming course load, plain old laziness, or because it’s harder to live on your own than you’d imagine, chances are you either don’t clean as often as you should or you don’t clean at all. And, contrary to popular belief, this is an issue that spans the gender divide.
On average, college students go a whole thirty days – just about a month – without truly cleaning their room. Men go without cleaning for longer, averaging 34 days, but women aren’t much better, allowing 25 days to pass before it’s cleaning time.4
How gross does that mean things can get? Well, pretty gross.
Bed sheets are the prime offenders for guys, carrying upwards of 1.5 million colony-forming units (CFU) of bacteria per square inch and harboring dust mites that feed off the skin we all shed as we sleep and leave behind waste that can lead to eczema, rashes, heightened allergies, and can weaken your immune system.5,6 By comparison, a pet’s food bowl – which can be one of the most germ-infested items in a house – has roughly 2,100 CFU/sq.in.5 Luckily, this is an easy fix. Simply washing bed sheets with detergent in 60-degree water once a week can kill these unwelcome bedfellows and make sleeping more enjoyable too.6
That doesn’t mean girls are off the hook though. Ladies’ bathrooms consistently fail the cleanliness test, with bathroom doorknobs also harboring around 1.5 million CFU/sq.in. And yes, that makes them as dirty as a college male’s bed sheets.5 Out-of-date cosmetics can harbor dangerous strains of bacteria. And bathroom-based pathogens can lurk on doorknobs for much longer than otherwise expected, adding to the onslaught of germs that this time of year brings.7 Your standard antiseptic wipes can come in handy here, as can better handwashing practices.
Other household basics, such as dresser and desk surfaces, light switches, and refrigerator shelves are also known to be bacteria hotspots.5 Bottom line: don’t save the deep cleans for when your parents are in town. Keeping a cleaner room can keep you healthier and let you focus on other things, like finals.
3. Avoid Digital Distractions
The digital age has had a tremendous impact on education. Online classes, textbooks, databases, and libraries make accessing all of human knowledge easier than ever before. Students write papers, take tests, create study guides, and do a variety of productive, educational tasks with the many technological devices at their disposal. Unfortunately, that’s not the whole story.
Because these same devices can also be used for online shopping, Netflix binges, and late-night FaceTime chats, heavy usage of these tech gadgets can have negative side effects, both on your physical and collegiate health.
Remember how dirty your bed sheets (guys) and bathrooms (girls) are? With three-quarters of Americans sleeping with their phone in their bed every night and almost 70 percent admitting to using their phone while on the toilet – thankfully only a quarter of us have dropped our phones in the toilet – your phone is not much cleaner.8,9 Whether you want to know or not, over 80 percent of the bacteria and other germs found on your phone are also found on your hands and in your mouth.10
Thankfully, under normal conditions, the vast majority of these cell phone hitchhikers are not harmful and simply happy to have a place to call home.10 But as flu season nears and your friends start to get sick, it’s important to remember that your prized possession has the potential of passing along something nasty. Healthy habits here involve sanitizing your phone and laptop regularly and avoiding brining your technology to places like your bed and bathroom, where it is more likely to welcome aboard new bacteria.
But even if they don’t get you sick, your gadgets can still make finals harder than they have to be. Excessive small-screen time has been found to cause a variety of side effects that aren’t exactly user friendly, including:
- Killing your productivity, making it harder for you to focus on assignments and exams and more likely to get lost in a tidal wave of podcasts and mobile games.11
- Increased insomnia, as all the light from your various screens has been shown to throw off your natural sleep cycle, something that would come in handy as you spend your nights cramming.12
- Making remembering things harder. Unproductive technology use can also disrupt how you learn and retain information. What’s the point in studying if your Instagram account won’t let you remember anything?11
Reducing the amount of recreational technology use can only help set you up for success and good health in the marathon of finals coming your way. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but thankfully the new seasons of all your favorite shows and your favorite celebrity’s Twitter feed will all still be there once exams are through.
4. Eat Healthy
It’s a common lie every college student tells well: “Yes mom, I’m eating enough.”
For all your effort though, she knows you’re lying. And sometimes, even without finals to worry about, eating regular meals is too much of a task, let alone finding healthy options in the sea of dining halls, vending machines, fast food joints, and snacks you have access to all day, every day.
And though it may seem like the fevered dream of a madman, eating healthy doesn’t have to be hard. Unless you want or need to, there’s no need to go vegan, cut out carbs, try a cleanse, or follow any of the other diet fads found on campuses.
The college diet typically revolves around things that are easy to make and eat. Convenience is king. But it’s not just Hot Pockets and potato chips. Fruits and vegetables are just as easy to eat on-the-go and are a natural source of energy that can also help boost your immune system.13
Just as important, it's best to eat regularly. If it’s impossible, sit down for each of the three meals you should be having each day, and make sure to pack plenty of snack options to get you through the day. Produce, cheese, yogurt, and granola can fit in almost any backpack or purse and should be easy to scarf down between classes.
Don’t forget about water either! Just because it’s getting chilly outside doesn’t mean you won’t get dehydrated. And in addition to needing water to survive, drinking more water during cold and flu season helps your blood circulate more freely and lets white blood cells find and kill infections faster.14 The standard recommendation is eight to 10 glasses a day, an easily-attainable goal with the help of a refillable water bottle.
5. Don’t Go It Alone
Unfortunately, some people just have bad luck. Despite your best efforts and taking every precaution, you still may end up coming down with something nasty right as finals and the holidays approach. No illness prevention method is foolproof in the contamination zones we call dorm rooms and lecture halls. Viruses and bacteria work overtime this time of year to sneak past your immune system and leave you a shivering, sweaty, snot-filled shell of a student. But there’s still hope!
Even though being an adult is hard, and frequently makes you wish you were still living at home, there are plenty of resources at your disposal should you get sick at the end of the semester. And even though we all want to be independent and show our parents we’ve got what it takes to stick out a mild infection, finding a healthcare solution during your finals is easier than you’d think.
Most colleges have student health centers on campus that offer basic care to students with limited resources. But for other “in a pinch” health needs, urgent care centers like MedExpress are there with convenient hours and friendly staff to help you handle life’s health hurdles.
Long story short: finals suck. You’re likely going to be tired, stressed-out, and run down by the time they’re through. And that’s assuming you don’t get sick!
Staying healthy and focused on finals is easier than you think. And thankfully, it’s only a small period of time before winter break, the holiday season, and a few weeks spent with friends back home, where you'll likely be dodging the incessant questions your relatives will throw your way.
1 National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Healthy Sleep. Last updated August 2009. Accessed October 16, 2018.
2 Mayo Clinic: Lack of Sleep: Can it Make You Sick? Last updated June 9, 2015. Accessed October 16, 2018.
3 Oregon State University: Tips for Getting Good Sleep. Last updated January 1, 2018. Accessed October 17, 2018.
4 Mattress Advisor: Clean Up Your Room. Last updated October 2, 2018. Accessed October 17, 2018.
5 College Stats: Bacteria on Campus: Examining Men's and Women's Dorm Rooms. Accessed October 17, 2018.
6 Reader's Digest: 10 Things In Your House That Could Be Making You Sick. Accessed October 18, 2018.
7 Healthy Lifestyles: Door Handles can Spread Germs. Accessed October 20, 2018.
8 Fortune: Here's How Many Americans Sleep With Their Smartphones. Last updated June 29, 2015. Accessed October 22, 2018.
9 CNBC: Study reveals what people do with their phones in the bathroom. Last updated July 12, 2016. Accessed October 22, 2018.
10 Healthline: Your Cell Phone is Covered With a Personal Bacterial Cocktail. Last updated June 24, 2014. Accessed October 22, 2018.
11 Business Insider: How Smartphone Light Affects Your Brain and Body. Last updated July 11, 2017. Accessed October 22, 2018.
12 JAMA Pediatrics: Association Between Portable Screen-Based Media Device Access or Use and Sleep Outcomes. Last updated November 16, 2016. Accessed October 17, 2018.
13 CDC: College Health and Safety. Last updated August 9, 2016. Accessed October 20, 2018.
14 Aquasana: Healthy Hydration: Drink Up To Prevent Colds & Flu. Last updated January 1, 2018. Accessed October 20, 2018.