“Mom, I’m sick,” is something no parent wants to hear from their college student. However, kids can and often do fall ill while away at school. It can be hard when young adults are far away from home, but there are steps parents and students can take to make sure kids are equipped to handle illnesses and health issues that may occur when they’re on their own. Here are 10 easy ways to make sure your college-bound kiddo has what they need to make the grade when it comes to their health while away at school.
1. See the doctor before they go
Before your college student leaves home, make sure they see their doctor. Dr. Geoffrey Hart-Cooper, a pediatrician at Stanford Children’s Health Peninsula Pediatric Medical Group, recommends a visit to review their health and answer any questions. “We see patients go to college every year and enjoy supporting them during this big transition,” he says.
If they aren’t already responsible for scheduling their own appointments as well as checking in and handling their own paperwork, now is a good time to have students do so. “Make them comfortable with the process and procedures of medical care,” says Kelly Radi, speaker and award-winning author of “Out to Sea: A Parents’ Survival Guide to the Freshman Voyage.”
2. Make sure they have the vaccinations they need
Remember getting your little kids immunized before they started school (we know — sniff — time flies)? The good news is that for college “there aren’t any new mandatory vaccinations to get if you’ve been going to regular well teen checks,” says Hart-Cooper, but it’s still important to make sure students’ immunizations are up to date. The American College Health Association (ACHA) “strongly supports the use of vaccines to protect the health of our individual students and our campus communities.”
The flu shot is particularly valuable to college students given how quickly the flu can spread in dorms and other shared living spaces, according to Hart-Cooper. He suggests getting the flu vaccine as early as possible, noting it is often offered beginning in September.
Far less common is meningitis. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends the standard meningococcal vaccine for all patients and they should discuss with their physician whether the meningococcal B vaccine is also needed. Hart-Cooper recommends it to patients given its severity and high rate of mortality. The CDC says that “teens and young adults are at increased risk” and outbreaks have been known to occur on college campuses, again due to many people living in a small space, adding that 10 to 15 percent of those who contract meningococcal disease die, with death occurring “in as little as a few hours.”
If your student plans to study abroad, make sure they talk with their doctor about their travels well ahead of their departure. Many of the vaccines necessary for travel to foreign countries, such as for Hepatitis A, should be given well in advance of a trip.
3. Have a plan for prescriptions
Many students take regular medication and “prescription management can be challenging, especially when attending college in a different state,” says Dr. Deborah S. Clements, Chair of Family and Community Medicine, Northwestern Medicine Grayslake Outpatient Center.
Make sure your student has enough refills of any prescribed medication to get through the first semester, or whenever they plan to return home, and that they know where they’ll refill their medications. Clements also suggests scheduling a new patient visit at the student health center well in advance of a need for a refill to ensure continuity of care and that no doses are missed.
Remind students to keep their medication somewhere private and, ideally, accessible only by them, and to not share the medication with anyone. Also, emphasize how important it is not to take medication prescribed to someone else. It’s a common problem among college students — the 2015 College Prescription Drug Study by the Center for the Study of Student Life at Ohio State University found that nearly one in five students misused prescription stimulants such as Adderall. Remind students that their health is more important than their grades.
4. Assemble a first aid kit — and teach kids how to use it
You can assemble a basic first aid kit on your own by purchasing a plastic container and stocking it with over-the-counter medications for pain relief, antihistamines, and cold medicine, as well as bandages, antibiotic ointment, cortisone cream, a thermometer, tweezers, an ice pack, and any other items you or they may find helpful.
Be sure to walk your child through the kit to familiarize them with the included over-the-counter medications and how to take them. “Don’t send your kid to college with all the meds and none of the wisdom,” warns Radi, who notes that kids often rely on parents to dispense medicine and are not familiar with dosages. She recommends parents help kids make a written cheat sheet detailing what to take when.
5. Compile a list of resources and copies of their insurance card
Identify the best way to get in touch with a doctor for both routine and urgent health questions. Hart-Cooper notes that while that source will often be the student health clinic on campus, the clinic’s hours can vary. Make sure your child knows where the health clinic and counseling center are on campus.
“From a financial perspective, it’s one of the best things you can do, as it’s often included as part of student fees or they offer reduced rates,” says Radi.
Also include the name of the closest hospital, as well as any specialists they may need in the area should they have any chronic conditions. Students will need their insurance card to use those resources. Radi recommends making an extra copy of the insurance card and taping it inside the first aid kit so that it’s both handy and visible when kids need it. Parents may also want to keep the list of resources and a copy of the insurance card at home, too.
6. Execute a medical Power of Attorney and HIPAA authorization
If your child is in the hospital in a different state and you’re trying to get information by phone, it’s incredibly frustrating to hear that they legally cannot share with you the information you are desperate to know. Once your child is 18, you lose legal rights to know what’s going on when it comes to their health care. Have your child execute a medical power of attorney (also called a healthcare proxy, a healthcare power of attorney, or durable power of attorney for health care), as well as a HIPAA authorization, giving parents access to records and the right to speak with their care providers as well as act on their behalf.
7. Prioritize mental health
College counseling center directors report an increasing number of college students with psychological problems. The good news, however, is that those counseling centers are able to help. The American Psychological Association says that 65 percent of college counseling center clients felt counseling helped them stay in school and a similar number felt it helped with their educational performance. Make sure kids know help is available. Radi notes that college counseling centers specialize in the 18-22-year-old age group and specific issues they may face.
If your child already struggles with mental health issues or is at risk, have them meet with a therapist or doctor at their school prior to the start of the school year. “Your child will get better care if they have a crisis when they already know a counselor and have a wellness and prevention plan in place,” advises Dr. Miriam Whitely, a family medicine physician at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
The experts agree that establishing good self-care habits makes adapting to college easier. “Mental health and physical health are deeply connected,” says Clements. “For many students, this will be the first time in their lives that they have nearly complete control over their time and environment, which can seem overwhelming. It helps to remember that stress management and adequate sleep are essential to learning and knowledge recall.”
8. Address sexual health
Conversations about safe sex and birth control between parents and their young adults, though sometimes uncomfortable, are essential. “It is very important that college students hear the message from parents and others that protecting against STDs is everyone’s responsibility — boys and girls,” says Whiteley.
Hart-Cooper says it’s important for college students to review information about reproductive health and to go over that information with their doctor. Many students are worried about the cost of sexual health expenses appearing on their parents’ bill. He urges parents to “let your college student know that you want them to have access to the best healthcare — including reproductive health — and are okay with these costs.”
You should also have a conversation about sexual abuse and assault, which the American College Health Association considers “serious public health issues that adversely affect college and university students because students cannot learn in an atmosphere in which they do not feel safe.” Review consent with your child, and share key safety tips such as always walking in well-lit areas and with others, telling people your plans when going out, and not drinking something you didn’t open yourself.
Also, it’s a good time to discuss emotional abuse as well. Make sure your student knows that they should never feel threatened, afraid, or controlled by a romantic partner and if they do, they need to seek help and get out of the relationship.
9. Discuss drinking
Drinking in college is common, and Clements says freshmen are especially vulnerable because of social pressures. Talk about the importance of moderation and note the health hazards associated with binge drinking. Also be sure to stress the importance of not drinking and driving. Responsibility.org offers helpful tips for talking with kids about drinking in college.
10. Keep the conversation going, and act if necessary
“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” urges Radi. There are obviously a lot of topics to cover, so start early, and keep the conversation going, even after they leave for school. “Kids will act like they don’t want to talk to you, but you need them to have information,” she adds.
Remind kids that they can come to you for help. “There’s a learning curve. Empower them to adult, but know that they may need a little guidance, too. That’s often just answering a few questions,” says Radi.
Those conversations while kids are at school can also clue parents in to the fact that there’s a problem. While it’s hopefully unnecessary, pay attention if warning bells start going off in your head about your college student’s health. You know your child best.
“Don’t jump in for every hiccup or cough, but if you know in your gut that something is wrong, you have to act on it,” says Radi, who had to go get her daughter during her freshman year when she faced a serious health situation and was glad she did.
More from Make It Better:
- 5 Ways to Help Your Kids Take Charge of Their Mental Health
- Smart Ways to Help Your Kids Pay Off Their Student Loan Debt
- The Dangerous Truth About Vaping: 5 Things Parents Need to Know
Shannan Younger is a writer living in the western suburbs of Chicago with her husband and teen daughter. Originally from Ohio, she received her undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Notre Dame. Her essays have been published in several anthologies and her work has been featured on a wide range of websites, from the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshopto the BBC. She also blogs about parenting at Between Us Parents.
Shannan is the Illinois Champion Leader for [email protected], a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that supports vaccination efforts in developing countries to ensure life-saving vaccines reach the hardest to reach children. “Vaccines are one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries and I’d love nothing more than to see diseases eradicated,” Shannan says. “We are so close to getting rid of polio for good!”