All eyes are on K through 12 schools to see how the next chapter in the 2009 swine (H1N1) flu outbreak will be written. But college students also fall into the age group most likely to catch the flu. And the close quarters of dorm rooms, classrooms, and college life in general, create the perfect conditions for the virus to spread. Indeed, early surveillance already shows a pick-up in flu-like illness on campuses. If you’re a student, or a parent of one, here’s what you need to know about staying healthy on a college campus this year.Stay informed
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging universities and other institutions of higher education to use student affairs services, housing staff, or campus health care providers to maintain contact with sick students. Make sure you know who that contact person is and how to get in touch with them if you or someone you know gets sick. Communicate now with your school to make sure you know what their flu response plan is—they may take further steps if the flu becomes more severe. And make sure your emergency contact information is up to date.
Look to local and state health departments for updates on the local situation, and the CDC for national updates. You can follow the CDC on Twitter and Facebook. Students abroad can look to the CDC’s travelers’ health page for more information. Also, the American College Health Association is tracking reports of flu-like illness at universities and colleges nationwide. You can follow their tally by state and region weekly.
Focus on prevention
Influenza viruses are spread primarily through tiny respiratory droplets produced by coughing and sneezing. The best way to prevent the flu’s spread is to stay home when sick, cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue—or a sleeve or elbow if necessary—and washing your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, though hand sanitizer sanitizers such as Germ-X, Purell, or a generic store brand product with an alcohol content of at least 60 percent will do in a pinch.
Once those respiratory droplets land on a surface, the flu virus can stay alive for hours. So frequently touched surfaces in common areas, including doorknobs, refrigerator handles, remote controls, keyboards, faucet handles, countertops, and bathroom areas, can also be a means of infection. Clean them often, especially if someone in your household is sick. Likewise, heavily trafficked areas, such as computer labs or classrooms, keyboards, desks, tables, and chairs may become infected. Schools are advised to clean frequently and to provide disposable alcohol-based wipes so students can wipe such areas down before using. You may also want to carry your own wipes if the flu is going around at your school.Finally, keep your immune system strong. Get plenty of rest, try to reduce stress, exercise regularly, eat well, and if you smoke, quit.
If you or your roommate get the fluThe main symptoms of flu include rapid onset of fever or chills, muscle aches, headache, and an unproductive cough or sore throat. You may also experience diarrhea or vomiting. See a health care provider quickly if you are at high risk of complications. That group includes pregnant women; those with underlying disease, including asthma, heart disease, diabetes or immune disorders; and children under 5 and adults over 65. Antiviral drugs can help reduce symptoms, but they need to be taken within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms. High risk or not, you should go to a doctor or emergency room right away if you develop severe symptoms, including trouble breathing or rapid breathing, chest pain, sudden dizziness, severe or persistent vomiting, or confusion.
However, there’s no reason to rush to the emergency room if you don’t have underlying illnesses or severe symptoms, but you shouldn’t go to class or other school events. Hospitals are likely to be overrun if the flu is widespread in your community—and if you don’t have it already, the hospital is a great place to pick it up.Instead, stay in your room and treat mild symptoms yourself. Stock up on supplies now, such as a digital thermometer and over-the-counter drugs, including pain reliever/fever reducers, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generics) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, and generics), as well as diarrhea medicine, such as loperamide (Imodium AD and generics). The CDC also recommends drinks with electrolytes to replenish fluids, such as Pedialyte. but our medical advisors say that fruit juice and soup would work just as well and they cost less. Stay away from alcohol or other drugs, and don’t self medicate with prescription medications from other students—they can carry serious risks of side effects.
If your home is close to your college and you can get there by private car or taxi, you may decide to take the trip and let your family take care of you. If not, keep to your room as much as possible to avoid spreading the virus. You may need to get out from time to time for mental and physical relief, just try to avoid crowds. Schools are encouraged to provide temporary rooms for the sick, ask if one is available if you or your roommate become ill. Otherwise, try to separate the sick from the well by at least 6 feet. If you can’t do that, the sick person should consider wearing a mask during close contact. Finally, use the buddy system: Choose another student to become "buddies" with, and you can check in on each other and help bring food and water if the other gets sick.Consider vaccination
Finally, a vaccine for swine flu is expected in mid-October. Young people age 24 and below are among those the CDC recommends get immunized, and pregnant women and young people with underlying health conditions are among the first priorities in case there’s a shortage. Many schools will be offering vaccine programs on campus. Consider getting vaccinated, even if you don’t fall into a high-risk group. Vaccination is a relatively inexpensive and effective way to reduce one’s risk of catching the flu and many schools are likely making the vaccine available to their student population.
—Kevin McCarthy, associate editor
Follow our swine flu coverage and recommendations.