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W&L Physician Provides Health Tips for New Students

As college freshmen head to their respective campuses in the coming weeks, one thing might be missing from their to-do lists: the simple admonition to stay healthy.

Dr. Jane Horton, director of Student Health and Counseling at Washington and Lee University, offers the following suggestions to avoid the common health problems that befall entering students.

See your doctor. Before you leave for school, prepare for medications that you might need for such chronic illnesses as asthma.

Review your immunizations. W&L requires all students to be immunized with the meningitis vaccine and the combined diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis booster. Horton notes campus health professionals are concerned about both meningitis and pertussis, which may emerge when newcomers to campus live in close quarters.

“The bacteria that causes meningitis is spread through respiratory and oral secretions, and people are in close quarters, sharing food and drink,” said Horton, “And we know that is one of the reasons there’s a special risk in the first few weeks of school.”

Pertussis, or whooping cough, has been emerging as a major threat this year. It is spread by coughs, Horton noted, and entering college students are in the age range where, if they have followed recommendations, they should have received the booster that was introduced in 2005. “If they have gotten the booster during high school, then they’re not likely to be significantly affected,” said Horton. “But they need to check their records to be sure.”

Get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is one of the biggest issues that students face in the early days on campus. As Horton notes, there is a lot going on — studying, socializing, early-morning classes. Students are also exploring the freedom that comes with making their own schedules. “Young people’s brains are wired to want to stay up later and sleep in later,” she said. “So they start short-changing themselves on sleep, and that runs down their immune systems and makes them susceptible to the kind of respiratory illnesses that we see so commonly.”

Observe basic good health practices, including respiratory etiquette. Wash your hands frequently. Cover a cough or sneeze with your elbow and/or use a tissue and dispose of it.  Stay three feet away from others if you’re ill with a fever or cough. “That can be a difficult one, since sitting in class is not a good place for someone to be if they’re coughing and have a fever,” Horton said.

Maintain a healthy diet and exercise regularly. Although Horton thinks today’s students are more attuned to eating healthy foods, she notes that once a student does not have a parent putting a healthy, balanced meal in front of them every evening, it can be tempting to choose French fries and pizza. “There are lots of options for them now,” said Horton. “It’s their choice. There’s also the option to restrict your food choices because you don’t feel in control when you have so many choices. I think that’s why we see problems with eating disorders. So much of choice is learning self-control. It’s about becoming an adult.”

Don’t smoke. Cigarette smoking has declined among W&L students. But Horton said students are often likely to be social smokers who have only a few cigarettes in social settings during a week. “I tell students that one cigarette damages the lining of their respiratory tract for three or four days,” Horton said. “So during those days after even one cigarette, you are more susceptible to allergies and infection. If you have an illness, it’s going to take longer to clear. It’s more likely for a cold to turn to bronchitis. And second-hand smoke has an impact, too.”

Learn to manage your time. Stress in its various forms remains an underlying factor in many of the complaints that students bring to the health center. In part, that is the result of difficulty with time management, with students on their own and having only two or three hours of structured time in classes each day. Much of the stress and stress-related illnesses that students bring to the health center emerge because they are not managing their time well, feeling overwhelmed and getting too little sleep, and thus feeling constantly tired.

“If they’ll think about their academic work as a job and dedicate eight hours a day to getting it done, they would have much better ability to manage their social lives in the evenings,” Horton said. “Athletes often fare better even though they have considerable demands on their time, because the structure of their day requires that they use their time more wisely.”

Use resources on campus. If students are ill or struggling in any way, they shouldn’t wait to take advantage of the Student Health Center or the Counseling Center. “You don’t have to have a major depression to meet with a counselor,” Horton said. “It can be roommate issues or adjusting to time management. The students sometimes wait until it’s too late, and then the issues are having an academic impact.”

The doctor encourages students to visit the professional, helpful staff. “The counselors and the nurses are great resources who can talk to people with concerns and follow up with a visit with a physician or a physician assistant,” she said. “We want W&L students to be healthy and get the most out of their time here. We want to help.”

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459