Influenza virus. Image courtesy of CDC/Doug Jordan, MA
Summer is over and college students are back on campus. Maybe you’re like me and you’ve sent a kid off to college for the first time. We checked off plenty of lists between cleaning up the Legos in his bedroom at home (yes, there were still Legos) and unpacking his belongings in his college dorm. We sent a basic first aid kit, but the start of fall also signals the start of flu season. So, does my college student need a flu shot?
The Best Way to Prevent the Flu Is to Get a Flu Shot
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to prevent the flu is to get a flu shot. Every year. The flu is a contagious illness caused by an influenza virus. The trivalent influenza vaccine protects against 3 flu-causing viruses. Every flu season, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices of the CDC adjusts the composition of the vaccine to match circulating flu viruses. The vaccine works by triggering your body’s immune system to make antibodies against the viruses that are in the vaccine.
How influenza germs spread through the air when someone coughs. Image courtesy CDC
The flu virus spreads mainly through the cloud of droplets released when infected people cough, sneeze, or talk. Flu viruses can spread rapidly on college campuses because students are near each other all the time: in their dorm rooms, in their classrooms, in shared restrooms, and in social activities.
Flu Affects Academic Performance
The American College Health Association surveys undergraduate students yearly about their health habits and behaviors. In one question, students were given a list of health and social factors—like anxiety, chronic pain, and roommate difficulties—and asked which factors had affected their academic performance in the past 12 months. The most-named factor, reported by 34% of the students who took the survey, was stress. But 14% of the students also said that “cold/flu/sore throat” had affected their academic performance (which was defined as receiving a lower grade on an exam or an important project, receiving a lower grade in a course, or receiving an incomplete or dropping a course). The impact of colds and flu was comparable to that of working (14%) or participating in extracurricular activities (11%). Also, as noted in a report by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, when college students get sick, they tend to be sick for 8 days or more.
Some Colleges Make it Easy to Get a Flu Shot
Your college student’s campus may have a special campaign to encourage students to get a flu shot. At the University of Texas at Austin, the annual Flu Shot Campaign kicks off in September. To make it easier for students to participate, pop-up clinics are offered at various sites around campus. Students can even enter their insurance information online ahead of time to speed up the process.
In Michigan, colleges and universities compete in a Flu Vaccination Challenge run by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The goal of the challenge is to increase vaccination rates across the state. The University of Michigan won the challenge last year and is already encouraging students to get a flu shot at a campus clinic and then complete a brief survey as part of this year’s event.
Does a Student Really Need a Reminder From Mom?
College students are transitioning to being independent, but many have not yet had to take care of their own health care. Some experts believe that unless a parent or other trusted figure urges the student to get vaccinated, they won’t. In a small study at one college, students were more likely to report that they intended to get a flu shot if they had family who also intended to get vaccinated that season.
The CDC recommends that people get a flu vaccine by the end of October. Schedule your flu shot today and then call or text your college student and ask about flu shots on campus. Check to see if the school takes your health insurance and whether that information can be provided online. As the CDC says, a yearly flu vaccine is the best way to prevent flu illness. #FightFlu.