Sending a kid to college means long lists of both things to do and items to get. In the quest to locate XL twin sheets, it can be easy to forget about some of the health items that belong on both lists. Dr. Geoffrey Hart-Cooper, a pediatrician in Stanford Children’s Health Peninsula Pediatric Medical Group, recently offered some valuable health info for college freshmen and their parents, covering everything from what should be in first aid kits to conversations to have before they leave to advice on managing their health when on their own.
This info is also great for parents of current high schoolers, so you can address these various topics in the coming year (or several) and not be rushing around just before they leave.
Between Us Parents: What vaccines should college freshmen should have?
Dr. Hart-Cooper: Luckily there aren’t any new mandatory vaccinations to get before college if you’ve been going to regular well teen checks.
Just make sure you’re all caught up on the recommended vaccines for your age group, which include the two-dose meningococcal series as well as the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine series. In addition to the standard meningococcal vaccine, there is an option to receive the meningococcal B vaccine. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends that patients and providers have an individualized discussion given the likelihood of encountering the disease is low. However, meningococcal disease is severe and has substantial morbidity and mortality – so I tend to recommend it.
Crowded dormitories mean you are much more likely to be exposed to the flu. Be sure you get your flu vaccine as early in the flu season as possible – it is usually offered beginning in September. The flu can cause about a week of missed classes and nursing yourself back to health in your dorm room. Not fun!
BUP: Should college students bring first aid kits? What should be in them?
Dr. Hart-Cooper: First aid kits are nice to have in case you (or your friends) have a minor medical issue and don’t have access to a pharmacy nearby. A standard first aid kit will be just fine, and should include medications for pain relief (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen) and antihistamines (benadryl, cetirizine, fexofenadine, loratadine). Be sure to review the appropriate dosages and how often you can take them. Helpful tools in your kit can include tweezers, bandages, antibiotic ointment, an ice pack, an elastic bandage, and a thermometer.
I also recommend identifying the best way to get in touch with a doctor for routine or urgent questions – even before they may come up. This is often through your school’s student health clinic, but their hours can vary.
BUP: Should teens see their physician prior to college?
Dr. Hart-Cooper: I recommend scheduling a visit with your pediatrician prior to going to college to discuss any health-related questions you have. We see patients go to college every year and enjoy supporting you during this big transition.
BUP: What about intangible items – what conversations do you hope your patients are having with their parents prior to starting their freshman year at college?
Dr. Hart-Cooper: Here’s a mnemonic to help guide your own pre-college conversation you may be having at home as well:
P: Paying for things
How will you be covering incidental costs like going out to eat, replacing a toothbrush, or buying that winter jacket you never thought you’d need? Decide on a monthly allowance from family, a work-study job, and/or other part-time work. Having a predictable monthly income helps teens learn how to budget – which is a lifelong skill.
Q: Quality of your physical, emotional and mental health
If you are used to regular exercise – be sure to keep it up! If not, consider enrolling in an exercise class offered through your school. Regular exercise will help you to stay fit and provide structure to your week.
For chronic medical conditions, develop a plan that includes information about how to contact a physician and where to go for care. If you take medication, be sure to have enough refills to get through the first semester and schedule any necessary follow-up appointments you’ll need (either while at school or when you come home for breaks). It’s also important to let the student health clinic know about any medical needs.
Know how to access mental health services at school, and when to seek help.
Review the importance of healthy friendships and relationships that are supportive
It’s important to review information about reproductive health, and to go over this with your doctor as well. When considering options, remember that condoms protect from pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and contraception (pills, patches, intrauterine devices, depo shots) protects from pregnancy but not STIs. There is also a medication that can protect from HIV, known as PrEP.
It’s best to start discussing reproductive health before becoming sexually active, and know where to find a doctor that will support this plan while at college. Many young adults are still on their parents’ insurance plans, and are afraid these costs will show up on their parents’ bill. Parents: let your college student know that you want them to have access to the best healthcare – including reproductive health – and are ok with these costs.
Parents: emphasize your support for your child regardless of which partners they choose. For sexual and gender minority young adults (LGBTQ), college can be a time of exploring their sexual identity.
Many young adults want to explore new things in college, which can include alcohol and other substances. Have a conversation about how to approach this safely as well as the importance of not driving (or being in the car of a driver) under the influence
College is full of unstructured free time. Think of ways to continue the activities/hobbies/extracurriculars you love and which new ones you’d like to try. These can be great ways to meet new people and develop confidence in a new environment.
Think of time management tips that have worked in the past, and how you will keep these up without parent supervision.
Discuss how often you’ll connect with your family. Some young adults want to check in on a daily basis, others like more space. Setting expectations now can avoid conflicts later.