Heading off to school is an exciting — and stressful — time. While you’re probably focused on making sure you have all of your school supplies or dorm essentials, doctors say it’s important to remember your health needs, too.
That means making sure you’re up to date on vaccinations, alerting your school about any medical conditions and being at least aware of the mental health resources that are available to you. (It's also important to note that there are daily COVID-19 protocols that one should be taking in addition to these basic health steps, which can vary depending on the school and location.) It can be overwhelming to think about, but it doesn’t have to be.
Doctors recommend running through this checklist before you go back to school or back to college, so you can be as prepared as possible for a healthy school year.
Make sure you're up to date on vaccines and boosters
Every school has its own requirements for these and your institution should be able to provide a checklist for you of what you need to be up to date on before you can start school, Dr. Danelle Fisher, chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. Another good resource for this is your doctor or pediatrician, who can tell you if you’ve had the meningococcal conjugate vaccine, which helps prevent meningitis, or the HPV vaccine, which helps protect against the development of certain forms of cancer. Many colleges also require that you be vaccinated against measles, mumps, and rubella, and COVID-19.
“These are still diseases that spread and they can be dangerous,” Fisher says. “You want to be protected from all the things that can be prevented.”
School environments are particularly risky for the spread of illnesses, Dr. Cathy Wiley, pediatrician and division head of primary care at Connecticut Children’s, tells Yahoo Life. “Any time people enter group settings, there is more exposure to serious and preventable contagious diseases,” Wiley says. “Vaccines teach your immune system to be ready to fight off these infections before you are exposed to them.”
Even if your school doesn’t require it, it’s important to get the COVID-19 vaccine, Dr. Alfred F. Tallia, professor and chair of Family Medicine and Community Health at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, tells Yahoo Life. “Immunization has proven particularly effective at preventing severe illness and hospitalizations,” he says.
Have your prescription medications with you at school
If you’re going off to college, Fisher recommends getting refills of your prescription medications before you leave. “You don’t want to be without them, and you want to have them on-hand,” she says. Fisher recommends connecting with your student health center about your prescriptions or finding a local physician who can help you continue to fill your medications. “It’s important to have a doctor close by so you can continue to get good healthcare,” she says.
If you’re still in high school, it’s important to let your student health services or nurse know about your medication needs “so that they may be stored appropriately at school or be available in case of urgent needs,” Tallia says.
Tell the school about any severe allergies you have
If you have a severe allergic reaction at school, you may not be able to tell someone about your medical needs during an emergency situation, Fisher points out. “It’s important to have your information on file and your medication available so that you can be properly taken care of,” she says.
If you have an allergy to something such as peanuts, your school can also take steps to help lower your risk of exposure, Wiley says. One potential option: making sure you’re in peanut-free classrooms. And, she says, you’ll want to have a detailed plan of what to do in case of emergency. “Some students’ allergies are so severe that medication needs to be administered immediately after exposure, while other students only need treatment if symptoms develop,” Wiley explains. “Also, allergic reactions can sometimes be mistaken for other illnesses. If the school is aware of the student’s history in advance, they will recognize and treat a reaction more promptly.”
Get a health insurance card
If you’re headed off to college, you’ll want to have a copy of your health insurance card with you, whether you have an individual or family plan. It’s also a good idea to make sure your student health center has that information. “You want to make sure you have an insurance card on file if you need it, and you probably will at some point,” Fisher says. Even then, you’ll want to have a card on you in case you happen to have an emergency that requires care outside your school, Wiley notes.
Know what mental health resources are available
College can be a stressful time, and Wiley says it’s important to know in advance where to seek help if you need it. “These resources can include campus counseling centers, peer support groups, crisis hotlines and community mental health services,” she says. If you’re already in therapy, Fisher suggests contacting your student health center in advance about their recommendations for mental health providers near campus. “You don’t have to feel like your therapy needs to stop because you’re going to college,” she says.
Have a well-stocked first aid kit in your dorm room
Living away from home means you won’t have ready access to your parents’ medicine cabinet if you happen to get a minor illness. “It’s so important to have your own first aid kit,” Fisher says. “You never know when you’ll get a cut or scrape. You could also get a headache and not be able to run out to get medicine in the middle of the night.”
Tallia suggests having things like acetaminophen, ibuprofen or aspirin around (unless you’re allergic to any of those), over-the-counter antihistamines, anti-diarrheal medication, adhesive bandages, peroxide (for cleaning minor skin wounds), face masks, gloves and an oral thermometer. These, he says, “are all handy things to have on hand for those living independently for the first time.”
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