If you’re a college freshman living away from home, it’s probably the first time you’re entirely responsible for taking care of your health. It’s somewhat like riding a bike after dad or mom takes off the training wheels — you’re on your own trying to find your balance.
No more regular reminders from dad about how it’s time to go to sleep. No more requests from mom to eat your veggies.
But there’s a flip side. If you get the flu, it’s up to you to get medicine for the aches and fever and make the bowl of chicken soup. Can’t tell if you’ve just strained something in your ankle or broken it? You’ll have to decide whether you need to go to the doctor.
Not to worry. All it takes is some planning to be prepared for the common ailments and rare emergencies. Here’s how you can stay healthy while in college:
Understand how your health insurance plan works. This is one of the most important things you should take care of from the get-go. ‘‘One of the most common mistakes students make is not going to a clinic when they need to because they think they can’t afford it,’’ said Ellen Reibling, director of the health education center at the University of California, Irvine.
You can avoid this by reading the fine print on the plan and asking questions before you ever need to use it. Most colleges provide a health insurance plan that can be used at an on-campus student health services center. Or your parents may choose to keep you covered under their health insurance.
Whatever the case, know what services/treatments are covered and where, how much the co-pays are and whether you’ll need a pre-authorization for certain services. Don’t forget vision and dental coverage.
Know where to go for medical emergencies and nonemergencies. Be aware of what services are available at your student health center. Too often, students don’t know that there are many services available to them, including counseling for stress. Find out the location of the nearest emergency room and keep important phone numbers for medical services handy.
Consider vaccines and screening tests. Many colleges and universities require you to have an up-to-date immunization record. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends other vaccines, such as those for meningitis and the flu. Meningitis can cause hearing loss, brain damage, limb amputation and even death. Check if you’re required to get the hepatitis B vaccine, the mumps vaccine (MMR) and the tuberculosis test. Some colleges offer the new human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, which the Food and Drug Administration recently approved to guard against cervical cancer.
Practice good hygiene. Dorms are a petri dish for infectious diseases such mononucleosis, so be armed. Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap, said Jacqueline Deats, director of student health services at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. Don’t share your drinking glass, water bottle, towel, toothbrush, cosmetics, razor and other personal items. Wear flip-flops when using the bathrooms and showers at the dorm.
Keep a well-stocked first-aid kit in your dorm room. Contents should include pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen, an antacid, bandages in various sizes, a thermometer, antiseptic gel or cream, tweezers, calamine lotion, scissors, adhesive tape, gauze pads, ice and heat packs, saline eyedrops, a flashlight, batteries and a first-aid manual.
Fill up on zzzs. ‘‘It sounds fairly simple, but getting enough sleep can make a big difference,’’ said Patricia Ketcham, chairwoman of the National College Health Assessment advisory committee for the National College Health Association. Too many late nights studying or partying can weaken your immune system. Don’t use caffeine regularly to stay awake for class. Take naps.
Eat healthy foods, drink enough water and exercise. A steady diet of pizza, fast food and soda combined with lack of physical activity won’t cut it if you want to keep a healthy weight. And exercise is a great stress reliever.
Get help if you’re stressed out or overwhelmed. Relationships are a major cause of stress, Ketcham said. More likely than not, your college offers confidential counseling. Don’t wait for matters to worsen, especially if stress is keeping you from doing the things you usually do.