By Rod Moser, PA, PhD
As a child grows, a parent will give them more and more age-related responsibilities, from walking to school or preparing their own breakfast to driving or holding down a summer job. Before you know it, that child graduates high school and is off to college or following one of many life’s paths. As legal adults, many will need to take a more active role in their health care. No longer will the parents be around to shuttle them off to the clinic for an unexpected illness.
Unless stated, I can often guess the age or maturity level of a person who will post a health concern on WebMD’s Ear, Nose, and Throat community board. Some may be teenagers, still at home, inquiring about a medical issue, but many are new college students, away from home for the first time.
Freshman dormitories and college classrooms are not the most hygienic places. Whenever you have crowded conditions, new human contacts, or move to a new geographic area, you are subjected to any number of new illnesses. People carry germs, and germs often thrive in people who do not have even the basic hygienic practices. Classroom attendance may be mandatory, so sick students show up even when they should be in bed. They may cough freely in the air, put soiled tissues on their desks for the next class to share, or fail to wash their hands during a busy dash to class. In a poorly ventilated and rarely disinfected dorm room, your roommate is very likely to share their bugs. Within the first few weeks of college, students may be facing illness for the first time without a parent.
They will have some important health choices to make:
1. They can miss class and just “wing it,” hoping to get better by the next day without any medical interventions.
2. They can practice self-care to the best of their knowledge, such as taking something for their headache or going to the pharmacy to find an expensive medication to relieve their symptoms.
3. They can call their parents for advice
4. They can ask their roommate or friends for advice
5. They can go to Student Health or find an urgent care medical facility near campus
6. They can get on the Internet and try and diagnose themselves, or post a question on WebMD
7. They can complain to the point that others are making health decisions for them
8. They can call 911
When it comes to an unexpected illness or a health challenge, not all college students will know what to do, or know where to go to get proper medical care. Their inexperience in making independent health decision will become immediately obvious, and the chance of them making a wrong or inappropriate choice is very high.
My personal experience with college students is that many will be ill for several days, perhaps getting worse each day, before seeking medical care. Many will even try to wait until they come home for a weekend visit or semester break. Like most people, they will initially try to self-treat, or take health advice (often dubious) from friends. College students are very computer savvy but may not be aware that a diagnosis cannot be blindly made over the Internet simply by listing their symptoms. I suspect that many postings on WebMD are from college-age young adults on their own for the first time.
As a concerned parent, there are some things you can do to prepare your college bound son or daughter:
1. Make sure that all of their immunizations are up to date before heading off to the dorm, including tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, hepatitis A and B, varicella (chicken pox), influenza, and HPV (human papillomavirus). Provide them with more than one copy of their immunization records.
2. Provide them with several copies of their health insurance cards (they may lose one). Make sure they understand co-pays.
3. Make sure they are aware of important components of their health history, like medication or environmental allergies, past surgeries, etc.
4. Make them a first aid kit complete with a box of band-aids, bandages, a disinfectant, antibiotic ointment/cream, hydrocortisone cream, sunscreen, insect repellant, acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen, and anything else they often use. Condoms can be in a first aid kit, too.
5. If they take any prescription medications, allergy medications, vitamins/supplements, or oral contraceptives, make sure they have an adequate supply with sufficient refills.
6. Get the name of a few pharmacies, urgent care facilities, the hospital ER, and the student health clinic near the campus and put them in your files.
7. Encourage your college student to find a primary care provider they trust (and one that is covered by your insurance).
8. Remember that a parent cannot get any medical information about a medical visit unless your child gives written permission for you to do so. If you want to be informed or involved in their care, they will have to sign a records release at each facility that they use.
9. Teach them the proper use of the emergency room. Inform them that the ER is not for minor illnesses that can wait for a non-urgent appointment.
10. Give them a book, CD, or app that allows them to have quick access to health information
11. Don’t be too hard on them when it comes to their medical needs. Allow them to make as many basic health decisions as you feel they can handle.
12. Don’t hesitate to give them the smoking, sex, drugs, seat belts, and alcohol speech again. They may will complain and roll their eyes, but do it anyway.
Taking responsibility for their own health needs is an evolving process. Don’t overwhelm them with the “what ifs,” but do be open about what to do in case they are ill or injured.
If your college student is planning on coming home for a semester break, make sure to make an appointment with their regular medical provider well in advance if they are going to need regular care or prescription refills.