6 Ways to Help Your New College Student Stay Healthy This School Year

Of anything I know from my previous experiences as a school teacher, and now a pediatrician and mom to boys (still years away from college), the transition from high school to college is one steeped in emotion for all. That’s why I’m listing my top priorities to discuss with your teen to ensure it’s a great and safe year as they head off to college.

I think it’s first important to highlight that within the past 12 months, college students reported that the following factors affected their individual academic performance:

  • Stress – 32%
  • Anxiety – 26%
  • Sleep difficulties – 20%
  • Depression – 17%
  • Cold/Flu/Sore throat – 13%

So, we know that these factors not only affect college students’ overall health, but also their social/emotional well-being, and their academic performance. Here are six ways to help your college student stay healthy during the school year:

#1: Talk to Them About Safely Using Medicines

  • Always Read and Follow the Label – All over-the-counter (OTC) medicines contain a Drug Facts label on their outer package that tells you how, when, and how often to use a medicine. Make sure to review how to read a Drug Facts label with your teen before they head off to college.
  • Do Not Share Your Medicines or Take Someone Else’s – As tempting as it might be to share your medicines with friends/roommates, make sure your child knows that it could lead to dangerous consequences – including someone taking too much of a particular active ingredient, mixing them with other medicines, and even overdosing.
  • Never Mix Medicine and Alcohol – Talk with your teen about never mixing medicines – either prescription or non-prescription – with alcohol. For instance, combining alcohol with central nervous system depressants like Xanax or painkillers like Vicodin can slow your heartbeat and breathing and even lead to death. Mixing alcohol with stimulants like Adderall or club drugs like Ecstasy can cause heart problems too, as well as strokes and convulsions. It’s also important to mention that consuming 3+ alcoholic drinks a day while taking medicines containing acetaminophen can increase the risk of liver damage.

#2: Talk to Them About Cough Medicine Abuse

One common type of OTC medicine used by teens and college students to get high are cough and cold medicines containing the active ingredient dextromethorphan (DXM), an active ingredient found in 100+ cough and cold medicines. When used appropriately, it is a safe medicine that alleviates coughs in children older than 4 years of age.

  • What Does DXM Do? – When taken in excessive doses, DXM has intoxicating, dissociative, and psychoactive properties. This means cough medicines taken in excess can potentially really change how a young person thinks. The most common side effects are nausea and vomiting, rapid heartbeat, and loss of motor control. DXM is even more dangerous when combined with other drugs or alcohol.
  • What is the Size of the Problem? – Approximately 1 in 30 teens have abused cough medicine to get high, and 1 in 4 teens in grades 9-12 knows someone who has abused cough medicine to get high. Teens report taking up to 25 times or more of the recommended dose of cough medicine.
  • What Can You Do? – Talk with your teen, it makes a difference! In fact, teens who learn a lot about the risks of drugs from their parents are 50 percent less likely to use drugs. Ask your teen what they know. Without judgment, provide information on the risks of using cough medicine to get high. Judgment can be stifling; information and guidance is love. Also, make sure every teen knows they can always call Poison Control to get immediate help if they need it – it is safe, and they won’t get into trouble by calling. Put this number into your teen’s phone today: 1-800-222-1222.

#3: Bring Up the Dangers of E-Cigarettes

I can’t discuss teen health without mentioning e-cigarettes, as their usage among high school students increased by 900 percent between 2011 and 2015. That’s quite a jump! What is especially concerning is that this increase came right on the heels of progressive data showing that teens were smoking less traditional cigarettes than ever before.

E-cigarette use poses a significant – and avoidable – health risk to young people. Aside from increasing the possibility of addiction and long-term harm to brain development and respiratory health, e-cigarette use is associated with the use of other tobacco products that can do even more bodily harm.

Check out this great resource from the Office of the Surgeon General on how to start a conversation about e-cigarettes with your teen.

#4: Practice and Teach Mindfulness

College is a stressful time, both for parents full of worry sending their children out into the world, and for teens entering unchartered territory. Yet, learning mindfulness techniques can enhance the tools college students have to manage pain-related conditions or emotional, behavioral, and mental conditions – including depression, panic disorders, and trauma.

Teens can learn mindfulness from a trained psychologist to help boost their mood, improve upon coping skills, and gain a sense of control over experiences that are mentally challenging. There are also apps like Headspace or Zen Friend, that are worth recommending. I also have a couple of awesome podcast episodes on mindfulness with a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

If your teen is stressed, depressed, or suicidal, they can always send a text to 741-741 and someone will respond 24/7. Put that number into your teen’s phone after you discuss the option.

#5: Emphasize the Importance of Sleep

Up to 60 percent of college students suffer from poor sleep quality. College students need 7-9 hours of sleep per night, but on average are getting only 6 hours. It’s just a fact that the college years are full of sleep challenges, from social events to study pressure. Yet, sleep needs to be a priority. Data shows that we are more level-headed and positive in our perspectives when we’ve slept well. We’re safer drivers and more focused at work or school.

Here are some tips to share with your college student to help them get a good night’s sleep:

  • Create a sleep schedule and stick to it.
  • Avoid caffeine at night and limit it during the day.
  • Don’t watch TV or work on your computer just before bed.
  • Sleep with earplugs and use an eye pillow to drown out any bright lights and the noise of loud roommates.

#6: Talk About Safe Sex Practices

While the CDC reports that we are at the lowest levels of high school student sexual behavior since it began conducting its survey in 1991, student reports of other factors that have been shown to increase the risk of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) remain troubling. In fact, nearly half of the 20 million new STDs diagnosed each year are among young people ages 15-24 years.

Condoms are clearly a fantastic barrier method to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and they also support birth control efforts for boys with female partners. Let your teen know that they shouldn’t be embarrassed by the thought of going into a store and purchasing condoms or accessing them at their college’s health center. Also, make sure your teen has completed the HPV vaccine series. It’s an anti-cancer vaccine that has been proven extremely safe and effective. We also know that it does NOT change sexual behavior.

I also recommend familiarizing yourself and your teen with Bedsider – an online birth control support network for women ages 18-29 that is operated by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. It’s a great resource dedicated to educating young women on their birth control options, better manage their birth control, and in the process avoid getting pregnant until they are ready.