14 Surprising “Gotta Know” Health Tips for College-Bound Teens
Written by: Jill Grimes, MD, FAAFP
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 or phone call away, having an ounce of preventative knowledge may be worth way more than a pound of cure!
As both a college physician and a mom of young adults, here are a bunch of practical and possibly surprising health tips your teen needs to know before they leave the nest and tackle life on their own.
14 Surprising Must-Know Health Tips for College-Bound Teens
1. If Hungover, Do NOT Use a Straw to Rehydrate
If your teen took their new freedom a little too far and partied too hard at that Friday night frat or sorority party, make sure they know not to use a straw to rehydrate if they wake up hungover. 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 Don’t Need Antibiotics
Most sore throats are viral or allergic. Here’s how to know if a sore throat requires antibiotics:
- Painful, enlarged, often bright red tonsils, with or without white spots
- Tender, swollen lymph nodes in the front of your neck
- Fever (temperature higher >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 Doesn’t 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 them! 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 their contacts, alcohol is very sedating and impairs judgment.
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 or 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 Taken Properly
Birth control pills work best 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 altogether.
10. Cold Sores ARE Contagious
Cold sores, (aka fever blisters), are caused by the 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.
11. The Real Cause of Heartburn
Heartburn, (aka gastrointestinal reflux), is caused by caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, and/or peppermints – which students often use in 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. Styles (i.e. Eyelid “Pimples”) are Treated with Moist Heat, Not Antibiotics
Make a “rice sock” by adding ½ cup of uncooked rice to a clean sock, tying a knot to secure the rice, and microwaving for 15-30 seconds. Test with your hand to be sure it’s not too hot. Then hold on the eye for 10-minute segments as often as possible until the stye resolves.
13. Ear Piercing Infections are Common
In fact, 20% of lobe and 30% of cartilage piercings become infected. Lobe infections typically resolve with 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 a 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 – Don’t Take it Lightly
We commonly see appendicitis, kidney stones, and occasionally even gallstones or pancreatitis, so do not ignore increasing abdominal pain! The symptoms of 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.
Kidney stone pain, however, comes in “waves.” You’ll 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 (as much as we’d like to!) but we CAN arm them with knowledge so they know when to seek help versus when to self-treat and give things a bit of time. I hope these health tips for college-bound teens help your teen have a smoother transition in their first year of college!
Best wishes to all the kids leaving the nest, and all the parents riding the emotional rollercoaster of their kid’s exciting (and worrisome) launch!
About Jill Grimes:
Jill Grimes, MD, FAAFP, is a nationally recognized medical media expert and author of the award-winning The ULTIMATE College Student Health Handbook: Your Guide for Everything from Hangovers to Homesickness. For more info, check out her website: https://jillgrimesmd.com. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @JillGrimesMD.