14 Surprising Must-Know Health Tips for College-Bound Teens

*This post was originally published as a guest blog on one of my favorite teen parenting sites, RaisingTeensToday  Be sure to check out this awesome resource!

When kids venture off to college, they often have a steep learning curve, especially when they start to take charge of their own health. While mom and dad are only a text away, having an ounce of preventative knowledge may be worth way more than a pound of cure! As both a college physician and as a mom of young adults, I’d like to offer fourteen practical and possibly surprising health tips to share with your teen before they fly the nest.

  1. If you are HUNGOVER, do NOT use a straw to Using a straw introduces extra air into your stomach and aggravates nausea. Instead, sip directly from a cup after mixing your single packet electrolyte replacement from your first aid kit (Pedialyte, Liquid IV, etc.)
  2. Most ankle injuries do NOT require an x-ray. Many students head to the clinic (often with parent prompting) to ask for an x-ray of their “sprained ankle”. If they were able to bear weight and take at least four consecutive steps immediately after the injury and, upon awakening the next day they can still bear weight enough to take four steps, it’s less likely they need an x-ray- especially if there is minimal swelling or bruising. Doctors will also check for specific point tenderness on your ankle and foot to help determine if an x-ray is necessary, but don’t expect imaging for every turned ankle.
  3. Don’t puke in the sink! Whether it’s too much alcohol, food poisoning, or a stomach bug, “puke” happens in college- a LOT. You might chuckle at this, but on behalf of the custodial staff in charge of dorm plumbing, this is critical info every fall. Many students only make it to the sink (while heading to the toilet, which may be in use or down the hall) and then mistakenly assume they can clean up by simply turning on the water…which of course, clogs the drain. Include a roll of “doggy poop bags” in your college first aid kit and they will have an airplane-style simple disposal solution.
  4. Most sore throats do not need antibiotics, because most are viral or allergic. What does suggest strep throat (and therefore would require antibiotics) includes four key signs:
    • Painful, enlarged, often bright red tonsils, with or without white spots
    • Tender, swollen lymph nodes in the front of your neck
    • Fever (temperature >100.5*) as measured by the thermometer in your first aid kit!
    • The ABSENCE of any cough- coughs are more common with respiratory viruses and allergic post-nasal drainage     
      •  *While you can have a strep infection with only one or two of these signs, the more you have, the    more likely it is you will be diagnosed with strep throat.
  5. Similarly, green snot does not immediately require antibiotics! Try a few days of symptomatic care with decongestants, pain relievers, and copious hydration to see if your symptoms improve before heading to the clinic.
  6. If you fall asleep with your contacts in, thoroughly wet them with sterile saline solution before removing! Prying a dried out contact out of your eye can easily cause a painful corneal abrasion that will mean at least a week of wearing glasses. Highly related side note: although most people know to avoid sleeping in contacts, alcohol is very sedating and impairs judgement.
  7. Can’t stop scratching your itchy insect bites, stings, or rash? Skip the diphenhydramine (Benadryl) cream and reach directly for a steroid (hydrocortisone) cream. Add cold compresses and if you’re still itchy, take a non-sedating oral antihistamine like Allegra/Claritin/Zyrtec. These medications last much longer than oral Benadryl and won’t make you fall asleep during class or studying.
  8. If you’re worried about a concussion after hitting your head, do NOT wait to be evaluated! Concussions are diagnosed by your symptoms and physical exam, so don’t expect a brain CT or MRI unless your doctor has reason to look for additional damage. However, students very often need a doctor’s note to temporarily limit their class, work, athletic team, or extracurricular club attendance, because the initial treatment is full brain rest – basically sleeping in a dark room, not using screens for fun nor studying. Your doctor can’t help you if you show up after the fact, asking for a retroactive medical excuse for a missed exam (because you couldn’t study after a head injury last week.)
  9. Birth control pills work most effectively when combined with consistent, persistent condom use AND when taken at the exact same time every day- set an alarm! This serves two purposes- one, it avoids multi-hour differences of taking the pill “when you wake up” and two, because it’s consistent, you are far less likely to miss a pill all together.
  10. Cold sores (aka fever blisters) are caused by Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV) and can be passed from one person’s mouth to another person’s genitals via oral sex- whether or not there are blisters present at that moment. Take home message: use barriers with oral-genital intimacy (consider flavored condoms.)
  11. Heartburn (aka gastrointestinal reflux) is caused by caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and/or peppermints- which students often use to excess, especially during exam weeks. Keep antacid tablets or chews in your first aid kit for the quickest relief (and obviously, cut back or eliminate the cause as soon as possible.)
  12. Styes (eyelid “pimples”) are treated with moist heat, not antibiotics. Make a “rice sock” by adding ½ cup uncooked rice to a clean sock, tie a knot to secure the rice, and microwave for 15-30 seconds. Test with your hand to be sure it’s not too hot, then hold on your eye for 10-minute segments as often as possible till the stye resolves.
  13. Ear piercing infections are common (20% of lobe and 30% of cartilage piercings.) Lobe infections typically resolve with only frequent cleanings using sterile saline. Skip the alcohol or peroxide, because these delay healing (no matter what you’ve been taught in the past!) Note that trying over-the-counter triple antibiotic ointment may be helpful, but nearly 10% of people will have an allergic reaction to the neomycin component, so this product is not typically recommended. Ear cartilage piercing infections, however, are a much bigger deal. The cartilage has very poor blood supply, which makes infections much more difficult to treat. Head directly to your doctor for any redness, pain, or discharge from a cartilage piercing, because these almost always require prescription oral antibiotics to heal.
  14. Abdominal pain can be serious- we commonly see appendicitis, kidney stones, and occasionally even gallstones or pancreatitis, so do not ignore increasing abdominal pain! The keys to appendicitis include: initial generalized stomach pain, followed by LACK OF APPETITE, then possible nausea/vomiting, fever, and later the pain concentrates in your right lower abdomen. Stone pain, however, comes in “waves”. You have double-over, knife-stabbing pain that lasts anywhere from 15-60 minutes, then it eases up for a similar amount of time before returning with a vengeance. Usually, during the first round of stone pain, people take a pain reliever, so they think it’s working when the first wave subsides…only to be shocked when the pain returns. If you recognize a wave pattern, head to urgent care or the ER.

We can’t wrap our teens in bubble wrap (much as we’d like to!) but we can arm them with the knowledge of when to seek help versus when to self-treat and give things a bit of time. Best wishes to all the kids flying the nest, and to all the parents riding the emotional rollercoaster of the launch!

Jill Grimes, MD, is author of the award-winning book, The ULTIMATE College Student Health Handbook: Your Guide for Everything from Hangovers to Homesickness.

Leave a Comment