College Health Issues
The National Center for Education Statistics reports more than 67 percent of high school graduates enroll in college. Last year, 18.4 million students were expected to attend U.S. colleges and universities. By 2012, the number of enrolled college students is expected to top 19 million.
For most college students, dorm life represents the first significant time away from home. The new-found freedom provides both opportunities and challenges for students. Some important issues facing college freshmen:
Sleep deprivation. Many college students have late-starting classes, fueling the temptation to stay up late and sleep in the next day. Even those with early morning classes may stay up late to study, socialize, watch television or party. The lack of sleep can lead to grogginess and trouble with attention and concentration. Chronic sleep deprivation increases the risk for illness, accidents and mood problems.
Diet. Most college cafeterias offer a variety of unlimited food. Students may be tempted to go overboard with favorite dishes, some of which can be very high in calories and fat. In addition to the meal plan, many students have plenty of snacks available between meals and at social events. An unhealthy diet, along with a lack of regular exercise, contributes to weight gain. In fact, researchers report more than 25 percent of college freshmen gain a significant amount of weight during their first semester.
Illness. Some college students have pre-existing medical ailments, like allergies, asthma or diabetes, which can worsen at any time during the school year. In addition, the close quarters and large number of residents in a college dorm contribute to a fast-paced spread of common illnesses, like colds, sore throats, influenza and stomach bugs. College students are also at risk for meningitis, a disease that affects the tissues lining the brain and spinal cord.
Stress. Stress occurs when the body perceives overwhelming demands or pressures. It’s a normal part of life for most people. College students may face stress from class assignments, papers, exams, peer pressure, family expectations and, sometimes, employment. High levels of stress can lead to anxiety and depression.
Relationships. College life brings a world of new relationships and a wider exposure to peers of different backgrounds. Some students have a hard time making friends, while others fall into superficial friendships, sexual promiscuity and/or party crowds.
Smoking, alcohol and drug use. A survey by the American College Health Association found about 17 percent of college students regularly smoke cigarettes. Researchers also report 80 percent of college students drink alcohol and 40 percent binge drink (for men, defined as five or more drinks at one sitting; for women, four or more drinks).
Despite all the issues facing college students, it is possible to reduce risk for illness and other types of health problems. Here are some tips to help college students stay healthy:
Stay clean. Regularly disinfect common surfaces, like door knobs and TV remotes. This is especially important if someone in the room or on the floor is ill. Wash your hands frequently. If soap and water isn’t available, use a hand sanitizer. Despite efforts to encourage hand-washing, one study found only 10 percent of male college students and 7 percent of females reportedly washed their hands before every meal.
Avoid exposure to sick people. Stay away from anyone who is coughing, sneezing or has other symptoms of illness. By the same token, if you become sick, don’t socialize and share your germs.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Get plenty of rest, eat a well-balanced diet, drink plenty of water and exercise regularly. Don’t smoke or use illicit drugs and limit consumption of alcohol.
Get immunized. Many diseases affecting college students can be prevented with vaccines. College students should have an annual flu shot. The American College Health Association also recommends all college students have up-to-date shots for measles, mumps, and rubella, as well as for polio, varicella (chicken pox), tetanus, pertussis, HPV (human papillomavirus), hepatitis B and meningitis.
Be prepared. Carry a health record and a list of medications, chronic ailments (like allergies and asthma), past medical problems and special health care needs. Keep a copy of your health insurance card handy and know where to go if you have a minor illness or a medical emergency. Pack a first aid kit and know how to use the supplies. It’s especially important to know the proper doses of over-the-counter medications you may need.
American College Health Association, http://www.acha.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/family/college
Garnier, Laura, et al., “Nonmedical Prescription Analgesic Use and Concurrent Alcohol Consumption among College Students,” American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 2009, Vol. 35, No. 5, pp. 334-338.
“Recommendations for Institutional Prematriculation Immunizations,” Linthicum: American College Health Association, January 2009, http://www.acha.org/Topics/vaccine.cfm.
Wengreen, Heidi, and Cara Moncu, “Change in Diet, Physical Activity, and Body Weight among Young-Adults during the Transition from High School to College,” Nutrition Journal, July 22, 2009, Vol. 8, p. 32.