Published July 26, 2011
College is giving your child an education, but your happy-go-lucky freshman might also pick up a few health problems and generate some doctor's bills to go with that $25,000 tuition tab.
College dorm rooms have their perks for the aching-to-get-away-from-home high school grad: parent-free, coed floors, and 24-hour pizza delivery. But they also pose several health concerns that both students and parents should consider this fall semester.
1. The hazard: Meningitis
Sharing tiny dorm rooms—and cans of beer—is a surefire way to spread the germs that cause bacterial meningitis, a serious and potentially fatal infection that affects the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
"Living in a dorm room is like living in a petri dish,” says Lisette LeCorgne, a nurse practitioner at the University of Arizona Campus Health Services.
Like the flu, bacterial meningitis can be spread through saliva (by kissing and sharing glasses, for instance).
The solution: LeCorgne advises students to get a meningitis vaccination and to wash their hands frequently, wipe down countertops and other shared surfaces, avoid close contact with someone who is sick, eat healthy, and get plenty of sleep.
2. The hazard: "The kissing disease"
Mononucleosis, also known as "the kissing disease," can be a nightmare for some college students. It can put them in bed for four to six weeks, says LeCorgne. But others might not even realize they have it. Unlike the flu, “you have to work a little bit to give someone mono,” explains LeCorgne. It’s usually passed on through close contact like kissing or sharing drinks.
The solution: Avoid mouth-to-mouth contact and constantly wash hands. Recovering from mono usually means weeks of bed rest, which can really put a new freshman out of the game in the first semester.
3. The hazard: Colds and flu
The petri dish of a dorm room is the perfect breeding ground for the flu (normal and swine) and the common cold. These respiratory conditions are passed through vapor droplets, infecting everything they touch, such as a desktop or the remote control. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most reported cases of swine flu in 2009 were in the 5–24 age bracket, where there were 26.7 cases per 100,000 people.
The solution: Hand-washing is your best bet against flu and colds. A new study suggests that, when combined with regular hand-washing, wearing face masks may help prevent the spread of the flu.
4. The hazard: Mold
Students needn't worry about a little mildew on the shower curtain, but mold infestation—in walls, for example—can be extremely hazardous to your health, says Susan Brinchman, the founder and executive director of the Center for School Mold Help. Mold can be particularly problematic for those with asthma, allergies, or other respiratory conditions.
The solution: Mold thrives in warm, wet conditions, so small-scale cases typically can be prevented by keeping clothes, bathrooms, and kitchen areas dry. However, if you notice signs of a dorm-wide infestation—such as a diffuse mildewy smell—Brinchman says to steer clear.
"Students should treat it like a burning building and get out," she says.
More From Health.com:
Beat the Top Summer Health Hazards
5. The hazard: Bedbugs
These tiny, blood-sucking bugs are not unusual on campus. According to a 2007 survey conducted by a University of Kentucky professor, one-quarter of all exterminators have found infestations in college dorms.
Bedbug infestations require professional help and are expensive to treat (Texas A&M had to shell out $27,000 to rid its dorms of the critters), but they are even harder to prevent. While pests that thrive on uncleanliness can be avoided by sealing food containers and minimizing clutter, bedbug infestations can occur for no apparent reason.
The solution: Avoiding used furniture and carefully checking luggage after traveling may help prevent an infestation. If you or your dormmates already have bedbugs, washing linens in hot water and using mattress covers may keep bedbugs from spreading.
6. The hazard: Athlete's foot
When it comes to the shower, flip-flops are the way to go. The fungus that causes athlete’s foot thrives in warm and wet environments, like the shower or locker room. These infections are especially prominent in communal areas because anyone could have it.
The solution: Wear flip-flops in communal showers and hallways. “You don’t know if the guy before you had it,” says LeCorgne. Make sure to dry in between the toes to prevent fungal growth.
7. The hazard: Sleep deprivation
Sleep can be hard to come by in college. Students are notorious for pulling all-nighters to finish papers and projects, and in a 2001 study in the Journal of American College Health, 73% of college students reported having occasional sleep problems.
These sleep disturbances can take a toll. All-nighters are associated with lower GPAs, according to a 2008 study in Behavioral Sleep Medicine. And while you can usually find 300 cups of coffee or Coke in the average 300-person lecture hall, overdosing on caffeine and sugar to make up for lost sleep isn’t healthy.
The solution: Establish a routine sleeping (and study) pattern, abstain from long naps, and avoid caffeine and exercise for several hours before bed. Learn more about how to get a restful sleep.
8. The hazard: Binge drinking
The lack of parents on college campuses can turn newly unleashed freshmen into binge-drinking party animals. According to a 2005 U.S. Department of Justice report, more than 90% of the alcohol consumed by people under 21 is in the form of binge drinking.
Drinking to excess is extremely dangerous and potentially fatal, and it can also lead to problems in the classroom. For every five drinks a student has per drinking occasion, his or her GPA is lowered by half a grade, according to a paper published by ImpacTeen, a research partnership at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The solution: It’s important to know how much your body can handle, which will vary depending on your size and weight. It takes the liver one hour to process one drink, which equals roughly 4 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, or 1 ounce of hard liquor.
9. The hazard: STDs
College brings the freedom to roam from dorm to dorm—and even from bed to bed. So it’s important to practice safe sex. As many as 25% of U.S. college students are said to be infected with a sexually transmitted disease. The human papillomavirus (HPV) is believed to be the most common STD on campus, followed by chlamydia.
Contrary to what some people think, you cannot contract an STD from a toilet seat or bed sheets. “That’s just not a possibility,” the University of Arizona's LeCorgne says. Most STDs, like HPV and chlamydia, are passed through sexual contact.
The solution: LeCorgne emphasizes the importance of using condoms to prevent not only pregnancy but also STDs. “You can’t think you're bullet-proof if you’re on the Pill,” she says. “The Pill doesn’t help against STDs."