Worth Health Center sees about 9,000 cases a year — everything from tropical illnesses like malaria, diabetes crises and the extremely rare tumor, to physicals for job applications and immunizations for overseas travel.
“College is a communal environment,” said Beth Kotarski, director of student health services, “when you have all of these students who eat, sleep, and play together, you see a lot of illnesses passed around.”
The most common reason for a visit, however, is an upper respiratory infection, also known as the common cold, or mononucleosis, an infection of the immune system more colloquially known as mono that can cause fatigue, sore throat and swollen lymph nodes.
“College and mono kind of go hand in hand,” said Kotarski. She also noted that the disease is not always passed around very easily, although it is not difficult to spread to someone with a depressed immune system, like a college student.
According to Kotarski, two of the biggest contributors to a weakened immune system are lack of sleep and alcohol abuse. A drink or two on occasion will not lead to a depressed immune system but consistent binge drinking has been shown to increase a person’s risk of contracting infectious disease. Sleep acts as a regenerative tool, allowing the body to heal and maintain a high level of antibodies and infection-fighting cells.
“I think the chronic problem is lack of sleep,” said Kotarski, who also mentioned that when they tell students they need more sleep, “they look at us and roll their eyes.” The Wellness Center, in fact, has a program dedicated to helping students fit good sleep into their lives.
“It breaks my heart when I talk to students and they aren’t getting enough sleep,” said Satya Nelms, wellness coordinator for health services. But of academic life, social life, personal hygiene, and sleep, students often sacrifice the latter in order to spend more time focusing on the former.
“The easiest thing to do is to maximize sleep that you are already getting rather than trying to squeeze in more time for sleep,” said Nelms, who added that trying to find more time can often increase stress levels, further detracting from a good night’s rest. Nelms recommended that students develop a routine before they go to bed that allows their minds to slow down and their bodies to recognize it is time for sleep. This routine can involve deep breathing, meditation, or non-academic reading, but should exclude extensive use of technology like phones or computers. She also recommended that students aim for a gentle wake up, allowing some time to breathe before getting out of bed and avoiding hitting the snooze button repeatedly.
According to Nelms, napping can also be useful at getting some extra rest, if done properly. Naps are best if they last between thirty and sixty minutes, and end at least four hours before one plans on going to bed. A nap under thirty minutes probably will not be very restful, and a nap over an hour could interfere with one’s sleep cycle later that night.
Nelms also cautioned against extensive caffeine use, warning of the adverse effects of caffeine if consumed within three hours of bedtime. She noted that this number varies person to person, and some people may need to leave a six hour window between the last capuccino and lights out.
Fortunately, one of the most useful wellness techniques is also the easiest.
“I think it’s very important for students to remember to breathe,” said Nelms, who urged students to take the time everyday to observe the campus, take deep breaths and be present.
Being young and tech-savvy also provides an advantage to college students that wish to be healthier.
“Young folks for the most part are very resilient,” said Kotarski. “I think students are more aware of health issues today.” Kotarski attributes this fact to the availability of medical information online (which is not always a good thing) but has helped students better understand their prognoses. “When I first started, students wanted an antibiotic for everything,” said Kotarski, but now they understand that that treatment is not always so conducive to a healthy lifestyle.
Kotarski had advice for students as finals approach to help them deal with the high-stress, low-sleep weeks, “It’s really important to give yourself permission to shut the books, even for just ten minutes, and take a break.”