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Eight Ways to Stay Healthy at College

As colleges and universities prepare to open the year with continuing warnings about the H1N1 virus, or swine flu, this promises to be a challenging year for student health centers.

But Dr. Jane Horton, director of student health and counseling at Washington and Lee University, says that the keys for students to stay healthy are not really different despite the swine flu’s presence.

Here are eight measures that Horton thinks students and families should consider as they prepare for the opening of classes.

  1. Have a physical exam before starting college. Washington and Lee requires all students to have a physical, and Dr. Horton believes it’s an important part of preparing for college. “For an 18-year-old going off to school, this may be the first time that they’ve had an opportunity to sit down with a physician one-on-one and talk about things like sexual health, tobacco use and alcohol use without a parent present, and with a clinician who can give them advice about those things.”
  2. Talk to your doctor about recommended immunizations for adolescents and young adults and make sure all of your vaccinations are up to date. Make plans to get a flu shot in the fall. Dr. Horton cautions that this will be the year when student health centers will be doing more outreach than ever to see that students get vaccinated against the flu – both the normal seasonal shot and the H1N1 vaccine when it becomes available. “We expect the H1N1 to be a two-shot regimen. That means we’ll want to try to get as many students possible to have all three flu shots,” she said. “It’s going to be a logistical challenge.”
  3. Have a parents-student conversation about expectations regarding alcohol, other drugs and sexual activity. “These are discussions that may be difficult for parents to initiate,” Horton said. “But it’s so important to have clear, honest conversations about expectations. Parents need to be aware that things are going to change and need to keep the avenues of communications open.”
  4. Check your health insurance. Families need to be aware, says Horton, of what kind of coverage the student will have on campus, including whether or not the prescription drug plan will be honored at pharmacies in the area.
  5. Bring a first aid kit with common, over-the-counter medications. “Students need to know how to self-treat a cold because many have never really managed that on their own before,” Dr. Horton said. “They need to know whether or not to go see a doctor, something that their parents have usually handled for them.”
  6. Do what your mom always told you. Wash your hands, cover your cough, dispose of used tissues – “All of those common-sense pieces of advice can make a big difference, especially for students who find themselves living with a whole lot of other people in residence halls for the first time,” Dr. Horton said.
  7. Watch your diet. Unhealthy eating habits are easy to pick up when no one is there to make sure you eat your veggies. “Don’t forget to eat breakfast to give your brain fuel for those morning classes,” she said. “Regular exercise is also important for good health and weight management. Students should try to get at least 30 minutes of exercise four to five days a week.”
  8. Get plenty of sleep. “For some reason, students get to college and their clock seems to shift, and they stay up too late, and they still have 8 o’clock classes,” said Horton. “They stay up talking to friends in the hall, and they don’t start their work until 11 or 12, and they’re up half the night doing their homework. Sleep deprivation among students is a very unhealthy habit.”

As Horton observes, students hate being sick at college, and the swine flu is going to make staying healthy a challenge. “We know that this new flu is very transmissible and that younger people are being affected at higher rates than we typically see in a normal flu season,” she said. “It’s not that it’s any more severe, but even standard flu can put a student out of commission for a week, and that’s one week’s worth of classes in a 12-week term.” That’s why Horton is emphasizing the importance of getting those flu shots when they’re available.