What to Do If Your College Student is Sick at School

 Colleges across the country have put careful plans into place to deal with students who may become sick with flu.  Check the plan put in place by your student’s school (probably on the website).  Make sure your student knows what to do if they feel that they have the flu.

As parents, we worry when our children get sick.  We worried when they were infants, we worried when they were young, and we continue to worry about our children when they become adults.  When your child is far away from home, you worry even more. It is difficult, as a parent, to hear from your college student that they are sick — and it is a difficult time for your student as well.  This may be the first time that your student is sick without having you there to care for them.  Although you may be feeling helpless, there are a few things that you can do to help your college student through this time.

How sick are you?

It is almost inevitable that your college student will get sick at school.  It is likely that they will get sick during the first few weeks or months at school.  Students living in the residence halls live in close proximity to each other.  They share rooms, bathrooms, lounges, dishes, personal belongings, germs.  They may not be eating as healthily as they did at home.  They are tired and often stressed.

One of the experiences that may be new for your student is having to determine just how sick they may be.  Your student is used to your hand feeling their forehead to judge the fever, your advice about whether or not to go to school, your suggestion that they climb back into bed or get to the doctor.  Now your student in charge.  If they call you, or you call them, remind them to take their temperature, or listen carefully to their body, or stop and think about their symptoms.  If they’re not sure how serious something might be, suggest that they talk to their Resident Assistant or Resident Director.  If they’re not sure, suggest that they go to the college Health Center or Clinic and ask for an appointment. Encourage your student not to wait too long to get a diagnosis or treatment.  Often students try to tough it out until they become worse.  Remind them that there is help available on campus.

On the other side of the coin, if it sounds as though your student’s symptoms are just uncomfortable or mild, remind them that they may still be able to attend class.  The common cold is nasty, but they can keep going.  They may need to curtail activities, but getting to class is important if they can do it. You know your student.  You know whether they are a stoic who will not admit to feeling ill or whether they will whimper at every little ache and pain.  Use your judgment about how ill they may actually be.

What should your college student do?

If your college student has determined that they are sick, there are a few things that they can think about.

  • Visit the campus health clinic.  Most campus clinics offer free services for students and are staffed by nurses, nurse practitioners, and hold office hours by doctors.
  • Get extra rest.  They may need to cut back on some activities for a while.
  • Think about what they are eating.  Add more fruits and juices and healthy foods.  Drink plenty of water.
  • If they are going to need to miss classes,  they should get in touch with the professor.  Find out what they are missing.  Get class notes from other students.
  • If your student is going to be missing class for more than a couple of days,  they should notify the Dean’s office.  Let people at school know what is happening — especially if there may be long-term absences.
  • Find a buddy who may be willing to bring food from the cafeteria or make a run for extra juice or medication or heat up some soup or tea.
  • If necessary, and only as a last resort, try to get home for a weekend for some TLC.  This may be what is needed, but it may also be important for your student to realize that they can get through this on their own.

What should you, as a college parent, do?

We do feel helpless when we hear that our college student is sick.  Your caretaker role is different now, but there are still a few things that you can do to help.

  • Don’t rush in too soon.  Be there, and let your student know that you’re there for advice or just to listen, but let them take the lead.
  • If you’ve set up a ”call home” routine, now may be the time to break the routine a bit.  Call a bit more (just a bit) to check in.
  • Don’t take it personally if your student doesn’t want your help or advice.  This may be part of their growing independence.  Be proud of your student’s desire to deal with this issue on their own.
  • Encourage your student to rest, eat well, wash their hands, drink fluids, and be sensitive about spreading germs to others.
  • Send a get-well or thinking-of-you card.
  • Send a ”health” kit or comfort kit — soup, tea, cold medication, thermometer, tissues, hand sanitizer, crackers, comfort items.
  • Remember confidentiality issues.  If your student visits the health center, they will not be able to talk to you about your student’s illness without permission.  Don’t call the clinic or the Resident Director and ask for information.  Remember that at this stage you will need to communicate with your student, not the school.  (However, if you have concerns about your student, or are worried that they are not getting the help that they need, certainly call the Residence Director.  They may not be able to tell you anything, but may be able to discreetly check on your student.)
  • If you sense that your student is more than mildly sick, use your judgment.  If you feel they should come home, discuss it with your student.  Suggest that they discuss it with the health professionals on campus.  Sometimes a day or two at home will help your student recharge and be better able to cope.

The transition to college sometimes feels overwhelming to many students.  Just about the time in the semester when they begin to get their bearings, they get sick.  Helping your student over this next hurdle — on their own — is another giant step in that path to independence and competence.

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