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As summer begins to wind down and parents prepare to send their high school graduates off to college, there are certain things to be aware of, from the importance of meningitis vaccinations to educating their children about when to see a doctor. Children’s of Alabama’s Dr. Elizabeth Peters, a pediatrician with Mayfair Medical Group, who also has a child heading off to college this fall, shares everything first-year college students and their parents should know for a successful — and healthy — kick-off to collegiate life.

Dr. Elizabeth Peters, pediatrician with Mayfair Medical Group

Dr. Elizabeth Peters of Children’s of Alabama shares essential tips for setting your college-bound child up for the healthiest possible experience. | Image: Children’s of Alabama

Is a visit to the pediatrician the best place to start before sending a teen off to college? What should parents know about immunizations?

Most pediatricians continue to see patients through ages 18 or 21. This may vary by office; however, this is still the best place to start. The pediatrician has all the patient’s immunization records and can let you know if your child’s immunizations are up to date before they head off to college. Requirements vary based on college and whether they are living in a dormitory. Often, students need updated meningitis vaccines and possibly a tuberculosis screening test. Though meningitis is rare, it is, unfortunately, a devastating and often deadly illness that tends to hit college-age students. The COVID vaccine would also be highly recommended this year. While the number of COVID cases in the United States has improved, we are seeing a new surge with the Delta variant, and we know the vaccine helps even for this variant.

Do students need to find a new medical provider in their college town?

Most colleges have health services available on campus. This is always a great place to start. However, if your child requires regular medication, it is important to find out if this is something their pediatrician can continue to provide, or how to receive this medication while at college. Sometimes the pediatrician can send refills to a local pharmacy. In this case, the pediatrician often requests they be seen each summer and over the winter holiday break.

If my child gets sick while away at college, what symptoms should be seen by a doctor?

Most viral illnesses can be managed without seeking medical care. However, if symptoms last more than 48 hours, there is concern for dehydration and concern about being contagious — these are things for which medical care should be sought.

What kind of medications or first aid should college students have on hand in a dorm room?

It is important to teach your child before they go to college what medication they can comfortably take on their own. This may include pain or fever reducers, medicine to manage minor stomach symptoms, and allergy medications. Remind them to always read the instructions and follow them carefully.

College student holding books and wearing headphones

Most universities have health services available on campus. However, if your child requires regular medication, it’s important to determine how they can receive their medicine while away at school.

What are some healthy habits to encourage for first-year college students?

People sometimes talk about the “freshman 15.” The reality is being away from home is often a shock on the body. There are fewer home-cooked meals and no one to remind your child to make healthy choices. Things for students to consider are: Are you drinking enough water? Are you eating enough protein, fruits, and vegetables? Are you getting enough exercise? Water needs to remain the most important beverage. They can ask themselves every time they eat if the meal included a protein and healthy option of fruit and/or vegetables. Try to find a way to get a minimum of 20 minutes of exercise five times a week — this may include walking to class, utilizing a gym on campus, or playing sports that are either organized or just with friends.

If my teen requires a prescription, how should we manage refills, usage, and storage?

Prescription medications vary based on college, state, and pediatrician. This is important to discuss with your pediatrician as well as your college before attending. Most prescriptions can be sent to a local pharmacy for your child to pick up. If they are taking a controlled substance, such as medicine for ADHD, we recommend keeping it in a lockbox in their dormitory. I encourage them not to talk to other students about having these medications on hand because unfortunately, these medications can be stolen and used inappropriately.

What should parents discuss with their college-bound teen on the risky situations they may encounter once they are away from home?

College should be an amazing and fun experience. However, there are many risks away from the comforts of home. I encourage students, both females and males, to never go out alone and always have a “buddy” with them. It is best to talk ahead of time about how they will react in certain situations. They will be exposed at some point to alcohol and drugs. How will they react to the situation? I encourage students, as they make new friends, to seek people with similar views regarding these activities. In college, the number of people involved in sexual activity will increase. Unfortunately, it is not always consensual and often alcohol is involved in these cases — another reason why having a friend with you at all times is so important.

It’s normal for young people starting college to have days when they feel sad, homesick, or a bit lost. What should a parent do if it seems these feelings persist or interfere with their child’s well-being and studies?

As students go off to school, they may find themselves homesick, or their parents may find themselves excessively missing their child and calling or texting their child too much. Make a plan from the beginning. This may mean planning to touch base twice a week. Obviously, this can be adjusted once your child is on campus. It is important for students to try to find ways to get involved as they make their new “home.” It is important to find activities that keep them busy but not too busy. If students are feeling overwhelmed, there are resources available on campuses to assist with mental health counseling as well as schoolwork. It is important not to be afraid to utilize these important resources.

Learn more about Children’s of Alabama and its services at childrensal.org.

For more expert advice and useful information from the experts at Children’s of Alabama, check out the following articles:

This article is sponsored by Children’s of Alabama.

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