With classes, homework, clubs, sports, shows, friends and a bustling social scene, it’s hard to find time for staying healthy when you’re away at school. A lot of sharing happens at college – sharing rooms in the dorms, sharing meals at the dining hall and study space at the library, even sharing drinks at parties – including sharing germs. In such a collaborative atmosphere, germs and illness can spread quickly if you’re not prepared. One of the most common and difficult illnesses to combat during the winter months is influenza, which has a long period of contagiousness – people with the flu can infect others beginning 1 day before they begin to feel symptoms up until 5-7 days after they fall ill. Flu season can be unpredictable, but it usually peaks in January or February just as the spring semester begins, according to the CDC.
Coming down with the flu can interfere with your classes and commitments, so it is best to be prepared. Flu.gov recommends that students stay away from classes and limit interactions with others for “7 days after symptoms begin or after you have been symptom free for 24 hours, whichever is longer.” That’s a long time to be out of class, out of rehearsal or out of practice, and can affect your attendance records, schoolwork and extracurriculars. Falling behind at the beginning of the semester can be disastrous in the end, so make sure you’re prepared.
Do You Have the Flu?
Is it the flu? According to Brown University, 10-20% of the U.S. population comes down with the flu each year, so it’s a good chance what you’re feeling is the virus. There are several main symptoms of the virus according to the CDC:
- Fever or feeling feverish/chills (not everyone with the flu will develop a fever, however)
- Sore throat
- Runny or stuffy nose
- Muscle or body aches
- Fatigue (very tired)
- Some people may have vomiting and diarrhea, though this is more common in children than adults
If you have a medical condition, like asthma, diabetes, or heart disease, make sure to check in with your doctor. These conditions can put you at a higher risk of severe illness from the flu. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Preventing the Flu
There are many steps you can take to protect yourself from influenza this winter. The CDC recommends:
- Get vaccinated – If you haven’t already gotten the flu vaccine, check with your doctor or local pharmacy to get one. The best time to get vaccinated is in September or as soon as the vaccine becomes available, according to the CDC. The vaccine is offered in two forms, a flu shot or a nasal spray. Everyone 6 months and older should get the flu vaccine. Check with your university health center and local pharmacies to see if they offer free vaccines, as well as your student health insurance to see if the vaccination is covered.
- Be prudent with your interactions – The flu is spread when an infected person sends the virus into the air via coughing, sneezing or speaking, and others inhale the virus. It can also be spread by touching a surface with the virus on it, then touching the nose or mouth. Limiting interactions with others will help limit the spread of the virus. If you know someone who is sick, try to avoid close contact with them. Similarly, if you are sick, make sure to stay home or in your room to lower the chances of spreading the virus.
- Cover your nose and mouth – When coughing or sneezing, be sure to cover your nose and mouth to limit the spread of the virus.
- Wash your hands often – During the winter, be sure to wash your hands with warm water and soap often to kill off any germs and viruses you may have come into contact with throughout the day. Anti-bacerial hand rubs will also help kill germs.
- Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes – Don’t help the virus spread! Avoid touching your nose, mouth and eyes in case you’ve touched a contaminated surface.
- Stay healthy! – Getting regular sleep and lots of it, eating well, staying hydrated and exercising regularly will keep you healthy and better able to fend off illness.
- Protect your investment – In some cases, the flu can become serious. If you’re worried about the flu or know you are a high-risk candidate, you may want to consider tuition insurance, to protect yourself and your family’s investment if you’re forced to withdraw during the semester.
Treating the Flu
If you end up contracting the flu, Brown University recommends several ways to treat your symptoms if you are not at high risk to make recovery quicker and easier:
- Drink plenty of liquids
- Avoid using alcohol and tobacco
- Take pain medication (such as Advil or Tylenol) to relieve the symptoms of flu. Do NOT take aspirin because it can cause Reye syndrome, a rare but serious illness in teenagers and children.
- If you are diagnosed within 48 hours of the onset of your symptoms and high-risk, antiviral medication may be available to shorten the duration of your symptoms. Consult with a health care professional and be mindful of the side-affects.
- Avoid contact with others to avoid spreading the virus
While the flu itself usually clears within a week or two, it can lead to serious complications, like pneumonia. Don’t let your symptoms go untreated and make sure you take the time to get better. Every year, 114,000 people will be admitted to the hospital because of the flu and 20,000 people die as a result of the flu. Don’t become a statistic – be diligent about prevention and treat your symptoms as soon as they come on. Preparation and rest will help you have a safe and healthy semester!
Check Out These Resources
Want to learn more about the flu, how to fight it and how its affects on college students? Check out these websites:
- Flu.gov – Specific guidelines for students, colleges and universities
- CDC.gov – Handy government website with pretty much everything you ever wanted to know about the flu
- Brown University Health Services – A great resource for handling the flu in college
Photo by MissMessie