5 Diseases College Students Should Worry About
Between the dorms, frat houses, and massive lecture halls, college might as well be one large petri dish. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists crowded spaces and community living among the most common risk factors for contagious illnesses. Factor in the unhealthy habits of many undergrads—binge drinking, lack of sleep, junk food, and a lack of regular exercise—and it's easy to see why so many of them get sick.
While waves of the flu are to be expected, college campuses sometimes see very different diseases—ones you thought were long put to bed, like the Ohio State University’s recent battle against a mumps outbreak. It raises questions: How at-risk is your (or your kid's) campus? And what should you do if an epidemic breaks out? Read on to find out.
1. Meningococcal Meningitis
While 2013 was a good year for meningitis, it was a bad year for colleges: Princeton University alone saw eight cases of the disease—which inflames the linings of the spinal cord and brain—and a student at University of California Santa Barbara had to have his feet amputated after contracting it. Many universities require students to be vaccinated against bacterial meningitis, says Kathryn Jacobsen, Ph.D., an associate professor of infectious disease epidemiology and global health at George Mason University. But these cases were from a substrand, serogroup B, for which there is no approved vaccine yet.
Meningitis spreads through sustained contact or exchange of saliva, such as kissing, but it’s also contagious via sneezing, coughing, or even sharing cigarettes. Bacterial meningitis is serious stuff: It’s fatal in about 11 percent of cases, and the CDC reports that one in five survivors suffer severe consequences including amputations and brain damage. The good news: It can be treated with antibiotics. The symptoms include fever, headache, stiff neck, confusion, and sensitivity to light, and typically develop 3-7 days after exposure. If their is such an outbreak and you feel any such symptoms, seek treatment pronto.
Whooping cough—a highly contagious bacterial disease—had all but disappeared for 5 decades until a few years ago. In addition to massive outbreaks in California and Texas, Vanderbilt University saw a run of pertussis in 2007 and Harvard University had a handful of cases in 2012. “Whooping cough is resurging among young adults, and can cause weeks of coughing fits so violent they can cause a victim to break his own ribs,” Jacobsen explains. In China, the infection is known as the “100-day cough,” because symptoms can last up to 10 weeks.
Pertussis is easily passed through coughing and sneezing, and is highly contagious: The CDC reports one person can infect up to 12 to 15 other people. (Imagine a few infected people sneezing in a lecture hall!) Although most people were vaccinated as infants, the protection wears off over time, so a Tdap booster (Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis) as a teen or adult is a good idea, as is the seasonal flu vaccine, Jacobsen says. In fact, a study that delved into the 2010 whooping cough outbreak in California—which saw 9,120 cases and 10 deaths—found it may have been fueled, at least in part, by clusters of parents who refused to vaccinate their children. And since, according to the CDC, only 8 percent of adults have received their Tdap booster as of 2012, it’s a good idea to double-check on yours.
Although the CDC reports that the number of U.S. mumps cases has dropped 98 percent since a vaccine was introduced in the 1960s, the last decade has seen a resurgence of the disease, particularly on campuses. In 2006, nearly 6,600 cases were reported across the country and more than 80 percent of those were college students. This year alone, there have been outbreaks at two New York universities, as well as in Ohio, where the number of cases jumped last week to 212—at least 132 of which have been linked to Ohio State, Columbus Public Health officials report.
Mumps typically starts with a fever, headache, muscle aches, and loss of appetite. After a few days, it causes painful swelling of the salivary glands in the cheeks—the phase during which it’s most contagious, according to the CDC—and can also cause inflammation of the testicles, Jacobsen warns. Be sure you’re up to date on your MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, she advises. While the shot is highly effective, it’s not a sure-fire protection—the CDC estimates that two doses are 88 percent effective at protecting against mumps—and since mumps is highly contagious, pay attention to symptoms if the school you (or your kid) attend has an outbreak. It spreads easily—through coughing and sneezing, sure, but also by talking with an infected person, drinking from a water fountain after someone, or even touching the same surface. Most people with mumps fully recover, but one infected person attending class or socializing in the dorms can make a campus-wide outbreak hard to contain. (OSU has been fighting its current wave for 2 months now.)
In the news lately for ruining vacationers’ cruises, norovirus causes similar outbreaks on college campuses, where the crowded conditions of dormitories are similar to the close quarters of ships, Jacobsen explains. Princeton saw an outbreak last year, and in 2012, colleges all across the Northeast saw a sweeping uptick of norovirus cases. Some outbreaks were so bad, they led to campus closures, reports the CDC.
Although the name sounds scary, norovirus pretty much looks like the stomach flu. That’s not to say it’s a pleasant experience: The virus causes infectious diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, fever, headache, and body aches. It spreads easily via contaminated food or water. Most people recover within a few days, but there’s no specific medicine to treat the infected. And since there’s no vaccine, your best bet is to wash your hands consistently and stay away from the most susceptible foods—leafy greens, fresh fruit, and shellfish—when there’s an outbreak on campus, the CDC recommends.
Syphilis, Human Papillomavirus (HPV), herpes: Name a sexually transmitted infection (STI) and there’s a college with an outbreak. A recent CDC study showed that people 15 to 24 years old reported a four times higher rate of chlamydia and gonorrhea than the total U.S. population. And while both are treatable with antibiotics, not all STIs are—genital herpes, HPV, and AIDS are all incurable. And even those in the "treatable" category are getting scarier: The CDC announced last month an increased number of treatment-resistant gonorrhea strands. “Drug resistance among treatable STIs is becoming more common, which means the cases take longer to treat,” says Jacobsen.
The best way to reduce your risk of contracting an STI is by using latex condoms. However, 64 percent of students report they don’t always wrap up, with male students who drink heavily the least likely to remember protection, according to a study in the Journal of American College Health. If you’re sexually active, ask for an STI screening at your checkup, and if you think you may be infected, it’s important to not have sex until you’ve been tested and prescribed treatment, Jacobsen says.
AN ON-CAMPUS ACTION PLAN
Once a college has confirmed an outbreak, school officials will provide students with instructions—typically via university email—on where to seek care if you suspect you're infected or that you've been exposed to someone who is, Jacobsen explains. How quickly you need to head to the campus clinic depends on the disease and symptoms: “Some people will be fine with home care if they have diarrhea or the flu; others will become severely ill and require medical assistance and perhaps even hospitalization,” she says. For viruses like the mumps or pertussis that are highly contagious, it’s important to see a doctor at the first symptom so the outbreak can be contained, she adds.
The best prevention? Make sure you’re up to date on your vaccines. The CDC recommends getting at least a shot against meningitis, whooping cough, tetanus, and the flu before college. Not sure which you’ve had? You can take this quiz from the CDC to determine which vaccines you may still need.