How to Prepare College Kids for Illness and Injury

Getting sick is an inevitable part of living on your own and dormitories can be a breeding ground for contagious diseases. That means having an emergency plan is important.

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When College Kids Get Sick

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Airborne illnesses spread quickly when one's living quarters are 10-ft. wide. Sneeze, cough and whoosh, one's roommate has it. And college kids are notorious for sharing food, glasses and, well, kisses. 

A key ingredient in helping your child prepare for independent life, whether it’s away at college or simply living on his own, is preparing him to take care of his own health.

It starts with making sure your child is in good health, well-prepared and well-equipped before he even leaves home. The "what to do when you do get sick" discussion needs to begin before your child leaves, not when he's sobbing on the phone with a 103-degree temperature and raging sore throat.

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4 Essential Things to Do Before Your Child Gets Sick

First Aid Kit
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There are four essential things to do before your child heads off to college:

Docs and Shots 

Fit in one last trip to the pediatrician or doctor.

Your child will need to get university health forms completed and college students need several essential vaccines, including the meningococcal vaccine, a Tdap booster, HPV vaccine for young women, and flu shots. 

Dorm First Aid 

Outfit a dorm first aid kit with Tylenol or Motrin, bandages, Bacitracin or another antibiotic ointment, and impress upon your teen the importance of basic hygiene in fighting disease.

Better yet, make a kit that not only looks great but also has a "First Aid 101" printed on the outside.

Equip your child with liquid soap. It doesn’t have to be anti-bacterial, but the accumulated scum of bar soap can actually harbor bacteria, says Mount Sinai's Dr. Joel Forman.

Emergency Numbers

Urge your child to find the phone numbers for the student health advice hotline and emergency services. The numbers should be in his orientation packet, as well as on the college website.

Have him punch those numbers into his cell phone address book and, if his dorm room has a landline, place them by that phone as well.

Have the What-If Conversation

Prepare your child for the kind of self-care grown-ups do when they get sick – the same thing you always did for him when his temperature soared or he felt crummy. It’s a simple three-pronged approach. 

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3 Steps to Take When a College Kid Gets Sick

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It's scary being sick when you are a college kid far from home. The only thing scarier is being the parent of a sick college kid far from home!

You can't send piping hot chicken soup and TLC through the campus mail room, but you can prepare your child with the basics to take care of himself with this simple 3-step approach.

Step #1 - Self Treatment

The first day of an illness, students can usually take care of themselves.

They should treat fevers with Tylenol, says Mount Sinai's Dr. Joel Forman. Drink liquids, get plenty of rest and see how it goes for the day.

Watch for signs of dehydration and any troubling symptoms – a stiff neck, for example, or a severe headache. Since colleges began requiring — or at least very strongly urging — students to get the meningococcal vaccine, cases of meningitis have been rare on college campuses but the disease can be fast-moving and lethal. 

For coughs? Skip the over-the-counter cough syrup. “I’m a honey, lemon and tea person,” says Forman — and research backs him up on the cough-suppressing benefits of honey and warm liquids.

Step #2 - Call for Advice

If the fever does not come down, diarrhea and/or vomiting persist for more than six hours, or there are other, troubling symptoms, says Forman, “Err on the side of caution, and contact student health services, at least by phone.”

That goes for injuries too. If swelling does not subside or a cut or abrasion appears red, feels tender or oozes pus, your child needs to call the health center.

Nurse practitioners usually staff the health center triage lines. They will ask questions, give advice and determine if your child needs to be seen, either at the health center or the emergency room.

Step #3 - Go to the Doctor With a Friend

If your child is very ill or in a lot of pain, make sure he seeks help from a friend, roommate or dorm resident assistant in getting to the health center or emergency room. Campus security will provide transport if necessary.

A friend doesn’t just provide moral support and physical assistance, says Forman, he can also help keep track of the doctor’s instructions and information.

That friend can also call you and keep you apprised of developments.

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When College Kids Get Sick: FAQ

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Find the answers to frequently asked questions about mono, swine flu, and other common college health issues.

  • What should we do if our child gets mono in college? What is it and how is it treated? 
  • Should we worry about swine flu at college?
  • How can I help my child cope with campus stress?