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When Your Kid's Sick at School

So your baby’s grown up and gone away to college. You’ve packed her full of good advice and loaded her up with enough technology so that you could find her at the bottom of the sea, if it came to that. But no matter how independent college students become, nearly every parent gets that call home at some point: “Mom, I’m so sick.”

It’s a helpless feeling, and you might wrestle with a decision to go visit or bring your child back. Typical ailments for college students include viruses, gastrointestinal infections or "stomach flu,” mononucleosis and food poisoning. A university health service also fields cases of sexually transmitted diseases and injuries from accidents—some which involve alcohol. (These of course, happen only to other people’s children.)

You can’t drop everything to tend to each new boo-boo, but there are things you can do to help prevent trips to the clinic.

“It is very common for college students to get colds and the flu. This happens most often around midterms and finals season. Stress lowers the immune system and makes it easier to ‘catch bugs,’” says Nerina Garcia-Arcement, a licensed clinical psychologist at New York University School of Medicine.

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You can’t drop everything to tend to each new boo-boo, but there are things you can do to help prevent trips to the clinic and, in the worst-case-scenario, the emergency room.

“Parents can help by offering support, reminding their kids to practice stress management, socialize to reduce isolation and increase social support, eat well and exercise. Care packages that encourage this are encouraged,” says Arcement.

A big part of preparation for college is to make sure your kids have the basics of self-care down, says Dr. Claudia Borzutzky, Lead Physician at University Park Health Center for University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine. That includes:

  • Regular exercise, healthy diet, adequate sleep (at least six to seven hours a night for most people)
  • Frequent hand washing during cold and flu season
  • Responsible use of alcohol and avoidance of binge drinking
  • Safe sexual practices
  • Use of bicycle helmets and respect for traffic and safety regulations on college campuses.
  • A primer on over-the-counter medications, most of which will suffice for the following: regular coughs, colds and flus that last less than a week or do not cause fevers over 100.5 degrees, shortness of breath or dizziness.

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Borzutzky says it’s also important to make sure kids understand their new campus's student health center hours and what kind of care they can access there. They should have a copy of their health insurance card and know what to do in an urgent medical situation.

You’ll also want to ensure that your kids' vaccinations are all up to date, including meningococcal vaccination, HPV vaccination (now recommended for both women and men), and annual influenza vaccination or the “flu shot,” especially for those with asthma or other chronic medical conditions.

One thing that may frustrate you, as your college student grows into adulthood, is that while you can always provide information about your child’s health to his doctor, you no longer can request information without your child’s written permission. If your child is under 18, privacy laws for issues such as mental health, drug use and reproductive health vary depending on the state.

“Learning to deal with minor illnesses without a parent close by is part of the separation and maturation process older adolescents need to go through as they approach young adulthood,” Borzutzky says, “However, in the case of more significant or prolonged injuries or illnesses, students will need to use their own best judgment about their ability to cope on their own without extra support, and parents and family are, of course, an essential part of their care and recovery when that is not the case.”

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