Seeing your kid off to college can bring a rush of emotion—pride for them, relief for you (their bedroom today is your home gym tomorrow). But also a fair amount of worry about how they’ll take care of themselves.
Luckily, there’s solid backup: the nurses who staff student health centers. “Most kids do great on their own, but if they stumble or have any trouble, we’re here to help,” says Angela Ramirez-Wood, RN, a nurse at the University of Washington’s Hall Health Center in Seattle. She and seven other campus nurses from around the U.S. weighed in on what you should know about the challenges your kids may face—and the resources in place to assist them when you’re miles away.
They don’t take care of themselves when they get sick
There’s a lot all at once at college: more classwork, more competitive academics, more partying, more fun—all the time, right outside the dorm door. Kids don’t want to miss any of it—even when they’re sick, even if that means ignoring symptoms. “It’s not unusual for our students to suffer with symptoms for days, weeks or even months before they finally come in to see us,” says Caroline Howard, RN, of the Student Health Center at Howard University in Washington, DC.
During cold and flu season, this extreme version of FOMO can have some campuses resembling an episode of The Walking Dead, says Maija Brissey, RN, a nurse in the immunization clinic at the University of Washington in Seattle. “A lot of students will go to class with a fever, a cough and vomiting, exposing everyone else—hundreds of kids—in the lecture hall.”
Parents can help by encouraging their kids to check out the school’s policy on sick notes ahead of time. Some schools make things easy by not even requiring
students to leave their dorm room to go to the health center or dean’s office. “I’m proud that students prioritize their academics, but sometimes you just have to miss class, especially if you’re contagious,” explains Kathy Mosteller, RN, associate director of nursing and clinical operations at the University of Texas at Austin.
They’re sexually active but not always sexually savvy
We know. It’s shocking to learn that your child, your baby, may actually be having sex. And along with that news come fears of unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
“Chlamydia is really common,” Ramirez-Wood says. “I’ve seen maybe five cases just in the past two or three weeks.” And nurses have noticed an uptick in other STIs as well. “We’ve seen an increase in syphilis and gonorrhea over the past couple of years,” Brissey says, adding, “we have huge stacks of condoms that are totally free for students to take.” (Antibiotics will treat many STIs, and it’s worth reminding teens—both boys and girls—that the Pill protects against pregnancy but nothing else.)
Kids may be lax about protecting themselves, but paradoxically, they take getting tested seriously, the nurses we spoke with say. (Funny how the slightest itch can trigger a catastrophic case of hypochondria.) “It’s common for college students to get screened for STIs when they’ve ended a relationship or are starting a new one,” says Carol Kozel, RN, director of nursing services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Encourage this kind of behavior. Yes, you may have talked to your teen about STIs and safe sex to the point where their “I know, Mom” starts before you even get going. But reinforcing these messages—even at the risk of enduring their withering sarcasm—is critical. Remind them that free condoms are a school perk they should take advantage of. (Pocket a couple thousand of them, and you can really offset that $48,000 tuition bill!)
They don’t get enough sleep
Of all the potential dangers parents worry about—drinking, drugs, risky sex—bedtime probably isn’t high on the list. But poor sleep habits are common among college students, and they may cause more problems than many people realize.
“Freshmen, especially, have much more difficulty with sleeping issues,” Kozel says. “They’re suddenly living in a large residence hall for the first time, and people coming and going all day and night can be hard to get used to.” They’re also likely to be spending more time than ever in front of their devices, with blue light that can interfere with getting a restful sleep. And with so much to do on campus—finally free from the fascistic curfews of their ogre parents!—kids don’t often make getting eight hours a night a priority. Sleep problems can be stubborn to resolve, and being tired certainly interferes with their ability to concentrate in class. They may also end up with a weakened immune system, says Michelle Camarena, RN, assistant director of nursing at UNC’s Campus Health.
Gifts of noise-canceling headphones, earplugs and eyeshades might rate a shrug at first, but your freshman will be glad to have them once the semester starts. (Warn them off Red Bull and sugar to compensate for lack of sleep.) Kids are never too old to nap, either: A 20- to 30-minute snooze can help refresh their energy. (UT-Austin even compiled a crowd-sourced campus nap map featuring the best spots to nod off.) And remind them that sugar and caffeine are no substitute for a good night’s sleep. For chronic sleeplessness—when your kid is a light sleeper surrounded by hard partyers—it might be time to reconsider the housing itself: Many schools offer “quiet floors” in residence halls or have top-to-bottom quiet dorms.
They are seriously stressed
College isn’t all hacky sack on the quad and kicking through autumn leaves on your way to Anthro 107: Feminist Perspectives on Social Media. Kids can get way stressed—and that stress can present as frequent headaches, trouble sleeping, stomachaches, fatigue and more. “We used to start seeing the symptoms around midterms or closer to finals, but now it hits in September,” says Mosteller. “Students are arriving already stressed-out. Probably about 20% of our patients come in for stress-related problems.”
“Some students are very open about their feelings and how they’re adapting to changes in their lifestyle,” says Camille Childers, RN, director of student health services at Wichita State University. “Others don’t really make the connection” that stress causes physical symptoms. They’re far more likely to attribute a stomachache to questionable food choices than to recognize it as a signal that they’re stressed.
Stress-related anxiety and depression are also all too common. Fortunately, the stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health issues is starting to decrease, says Julia Reich, RN, primary care head nurse at the Student Health Center at New York University. Schools have stepped up their mental health outreach, sometimes incorporating it into the same physical space as the student medical center to eliminate any trepidation a student might have about being seen walking into the mental health clinic. And if your kid takes antidepressants (or any other daily medication), impress upon them that they need to remember to take their meds and to refill the prescription. Nearly every nurse we spoke with said many students are thrown at first by the fact that no one is picking up their pills for them...and that they cost money. Just consider it one of the many lessons they will learn in college.
Boost Those Vaccinations
On campus, kids pick up new dance moves, dress styles and (alas) some nasty germs and viruses. As such, check the vaccination requirements for the school and state where your student will attend (they may different from home). Don’t wait until the last minute, says NYU’s Julia Reich. The last thing a nervous freshman needs is an arm’s—or butt cheek’s—worth of booster shots.
The American College Health Association recommends students be vaccinated for the following:
- Meningococcal ACWY
- Meningococcal B
- Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis
- Hepatitis A and B
Make sure your teen has a record in their email—or a quick snapshot of their health form on their phone. “When there’s an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable illness, a college might need to know who’s immunized,” says Kathy Mostellerat of the University of Texas.