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6 Ways Not to Get Sick This Year

Fall semester is around the corner and as most collegiettes already know, college campuses are a home base for getting sick. Between cranking out term papers on the weekdays and socializing on the weekends, collegiettes sometimes find it hard living by healthy habits.
Traci L. Brooks, MD, Director of Adolescent Medicine Services and Medical Director of School Based Health Centers under the Cambridge Health Alliance, says she sees 60 to 70 college-age patients coming into her office monthly with all sorts of health issues. “There are so many health mistakes college students make! I guess you could lump them all under ‘feeling that they are invincible,’” she says.
Here are some healthy habits you can start this year as soon as you’re back on campus. And no, I don’t just mean keeping Purell in your purse.

1. Don’t sleep with your cell phone!

In the age of convenience, we use our cell phones for everything: from texting to taking pictures, there’s nothing our phones can’t do. And at the end of the day, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s study, “Cellphones and American Adults,” 90 percent of young adults sleep with their cell phones on or next to their beds.
Studies show, however, that sleeping with your phone can have a detrimental impact on your sleep. Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that the wireless signals affected one’s sleep and that radiation exposure reduces one’s ability to recuperate from a long day. Lauri Leadley, Sleep Expert and President of Valley Sleep Center, in Phoenix, Arizona, says that it doesn’t matter if your phone rings or not, even having your phone on vibrate interrupts your sleep and puts you at risk.

“Just because you don’t consciously hear your phone vibrate, your brain does. We’ve seen patients be in the deepest stages of sleep, actually get kicked out of that deep sleep stage by even the smallest noise as a vibrating cell phone,” Leadley says.

Do yourself a favor: make it a habit of turning off your cell phone when you go to bed or better yet, leave it far out of reach so you’re not tempted to text in the middle of the night. If you use it as your alarm in the morning, invest in an old school alarm clock instead.

2. Pay attention to your posture!
We’ve been told all our lives to sit up straight, but our posture is the last thing on our minds when we’re hunched over our laptops in the library — and this could mean Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), a specific type of serious strain injury caused by doing the same movement continuously to the muscles, nerves, and tendons of your arms and shoulders. Things like bursitis, tendonitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome are instances of RSI. People who use computers often and for long periods of time without breaks (hello, exam season!), can get repetitive strain injury.

While you’re studying, use a lap desk or a table while using your computer to avoid putting pressure on certain muscles and nerves. Your laptop or desktop monitor should not be too high or too close to you. If you’re using a desktop, you should have an extender for your keyboard, so that your wrists rest lightly on it when you are typing; type lightly on your keyboard. Your chair and keyboard should be set so that your forearms and thighs are parallel with the floor. If this position feels awkward, change it, but still try to sit up straight.

Most important of all, be sure to take breaks. Even being in a “perfect” position may cause problems if you stay in the same position for too long.
3. Don’t abuse Rx and OTC medications or swap pills!

We’ve all been there: a headache studying the night before the big exam, a sleepless night tossing and turning in your dorm bed, or a monster hangover from which you want nothing more than sweet relief. You pop a painkiller or pay a few dollars for your friend’s Adderall and you think nothing of it.

Brooks says that she sees this issue as all too common, “Especially for things like Adderall, Ritalin, Ativan, Ambien, Percocet and Vicodin.”

According to statistics, prescription medicines are the number one most abused substances among young adults, other than marijuana. Some claim that the intentional misuse of prescription Rx and over-the-counter (OTC) medications is now as widespread as binge drinking on today’s college campuses.

Drugs, by prescription or OTC, are safe only when used at the dosage and frequency directed on the label. Any medication taken in excess or used for a purpose other than which it was intended can be very dangerous, resulting in addiction, overdose or even death. Not to mention, using prescription medications without a prescription is illegal and punishable by jail time.

“Don’t take other people’s medications,” Brooks warns. “They were not prescribed for you and you might have a very serious reaction.”
4. Unload your backpack or massive purse!

According to a student survey conducted in 2008 by The American College Health Association, 54 percent of students complained of back pain. While this may be in part due to stress or lack of physical activity, Brooks says it’s not a stretch to assume that heavy loads can weigh you down, cause physical chronic condition or even an accident! According to another psychological study, toting heavier backpacks across campus slowed walking speed and distracted students from traffic enough to potentially cause an accident on the road.
While you might not be able to convince your professors to lay off on the mandatory reading, what you can do is make sure you have the proper backpack that equally distributes weight to the shoulders, or switch up your use of backpacks with shoulder bags, and vice versa, so you’re not carrying the weight in the same place each day, and don’t bring your textbooks to class with you if you don’t have to.

5. Get your shots!
And no, we’re not talking about tequila shots. It’s true, no one really likes getting shots and some of us might even be afraid of needles. But going without certain vaccinations can hurt you in the long run. Before heading back to school, Brooks recommends you make sure you are up to date on the following vaccinations:

  • Meningococcal 
  • Human Papillomavirus or HPV
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis A
  • Measles mumps rubella
  • Varicella “Chicken pox”

Most colleges may require that you are up to date on your shots and vaccinations, but talk to your doctor about those that aren’t, and be aware of seasonal vaccinations such as flu shots which are often a smart decision on germ-infested college campuses.
6. Get your check-ups and get tested!
Other than your regular checkups, it’s important for women in particular to get tested. Most doctors suggest seeing your gynecologist or women’s health doctor at least once a year, and for women in college, it’s advisable to get a pap smear with these women’s health exams. Doctors recommend that most young women get pap smears done once a year, but recently, there has been some new discussion of that rule. “The rule of thumb is that once a woman under the age of 25 has had three clear paps, then she can start skipping them every three years,” says Medical Assistant Sara Petersen with SJ Internal Medicine. “Get three paps and you’re golden.”  Contact your university health center or doctor at home to schedule an appointment, since these often must be scheduled many months in advance.
With these tips, you’ll have a good head start on avoiding your classmates’ colds, keeping out of the doctor’s office and living a healthier lifestyle this school year so you can actually do the things you enjoy without being bogged down by being sick.

Check out the below hotlines for more details and stay germ-free, collegiettesT!
Health Hotlines

  • CDC Health Topics (Immunizations, STDs, and more): 800-CDC-INFO (232-4636)
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse: 800-662-HELP (4357)
  • Mental Health Information Center: 800-789-2647

Traci Brooks, MD
Medical Assistant Sara Petersen, SJ Internal Medicine

Alexandra is a graduate from the University of New Hampshire and the current Assistant Digital Editor at Martha Stewart Living. As a journalism student, she worked as the Director of UNH’s Student Press Organization (SPO) and on staff for four student publications on her campus. In the summer of 2010, she studied abroad at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University, in England, where she drank afternoon tea and rode the Tube (but sadly no, she did not meet Prince Harry). Since beginning her career, her written work has appeared in USA Today College, Huffington Post, Northshore, and MarthaStewart.com, among others. When not in the office, she can be found perusing travel magazines to plan her next trip, walking her two dogs (both named Rocky), or practicing ballet. Chat with her on Twitter @allie_churchill.
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