Mono, meningitis and other dorm dangers

Sunday, June 27, 2010

College dorms are a breeding ground for disease, and staying healthy comes down to four main things:

"Condoms, Pap tests, wash your hands and wash your clothes," stresses Lisa Zoellner-Gullette, nurse practitioner at Southeast Missouri State University's Campus Health Clinic.

"Our biggest concern in recent years is meningitis," adds Dr. Joy LeDoux-Johnson, physician provider at Immediate Convenient Care in Cape Girardeau. "It's more contagious in really close, confined areas with a lot of people, like a dorm."

Meningitis is a rare but serious illness transmitted through air droplets, kissing or sharing items like food, cigarettes and utensils. Zoellner-Gullette says college freshmen, who are most likely to live in the dorms, have a sixfold increase of contracting this potentially fatal disease. Symptoms include a fever, rash, headache, lethargy, stiff neck, sensitivity to light and nausea.

The meningitis vaccine is 85 to 100 percent effective in preventing the disease, says Zoellner-Gullette. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends routine vaccinations from 11 to 18 years old; all students entering their freshman year of college should be vaccinated if they have not already done so. The meningitis vaccine is effective within seven to 10 days and lasts three to five years.

Mononucleosis -- also known as mono or the kissing disease -- is another common disease on college campuses. This infection is caused by the Epstein-Barr virus and transmitted directly through saliva, such as by kissing or sharing utensils. Symptoms include a fever, sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, fatigue and a body rash, and they may last one week or several, says Zoellner-Gullette. Like meningitis, the best way to avoid mono is to avoid sharing utensils.

Dorm residents should also watch out for scabies, a skin disease caused by tiny mites that create small, itchy red bumps, particularly in the folds of the skin, including under the breasts, the elbows, groin and between fingers. Scabies is transmitted person to person or by sharing clothing, towels or bedding, but symptoms don't appear for four to six weeks after exposure, says Zoellner-Gullette. Scabies are treated with a prescription cream, and the person affected must wash everything he or she has touched since coming into contact with the scabies, including towels, sheets and clothing.

Other common college illnesses are strep throat, upper respiratory infections, pinkeye and flu, say Zoellner-Gullette and LeDoux-Johnson, and the best defense is to wash your hands constantly and get flu shots, both seasonal and H1N1. Both Zoellner-Gullette and LeDoux-Johnson say shared surfaces like shower room floors, doorknobs and faucets are probably very dirty and germ-filled. Once again, the best way to protect yourself is to wash your hands often and always wear shower shoes. LeDoux-Johnson says roommates should come up with a housekeeping agreement to make sure the living space, especially the bathroom, is clean and tidy. Disinfectant sprays or wipes are a good idea, she says, especially when a person is sick.

Still, the odds of spreading germs are higher when a roommate is sick. If one person is sick, all roommates should take precautions to keep their immune systems in top shape, says Zoellner-Gullette.

"Make sure to get plenty of rest, clean all the surfaces and wash your hands every time you touch your nose or mouth," she says. Also remember to cough and sneeze into the elbow, she adds.

"If you're sick, make sure you're evaluated sooner rather than later," says LeDoux-Johnson.

Sexually transmitted diseases are common on college campuses, and Zoellner-Gullette says chlamydia, human papillomavirus (HPV), herpes, gonorrhea and trichomoniasis are the most prevalent. In this area, her best advice is: "Condoms, condoms, condoms!"

Zoellner-Gullette says college women should get a Pap smear every year -- not just for birth control but to screen for cervical cancer and STDs, including HPV, the main cause of cervical cancer. In addition, the Gardasil vaccine, given in three doses, protects against HPV and is recommended by the CDC for all girls and women ages 9 through 26.

And what about the dreaded "Freshman 15"? LeDoux-Johnson says weight gain is indeed a reality for some college students.

"What we've seen over time is that the first year is an adjustment, and most students will either gain weight or lose weight," she says. "It seems like most students are not accustomed to preparing their own food and they eat more fast food and junk food." To ward off weight gain, LeDoux-Johnson says students must make time to prepare healthy meals and stay active. She recommends allotting time to walk to class, taking the longer route and participating in intramural sports.

"I think most college students snack more than they eat meals," adds LeDoux-Johnson. "Do buy healthy things for the dorm, like fruits and vegetables and low-fat snacks. Decrease the soda intake and drink more water."

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