My College:
Health & Safety

When You Get the Text: "I Don't Feel Well..."

Scott Sager

The text arrived early in my daughter’s sophomore year: “Might be sick. Tired all the time.” Nothing specific, but she wasn’t feeling well.

In high school, she could stay home, curled up on the sofa, and I’d bring her soup and tea. I hated thinking of her stuck in a dorm room feeling awful or slogging her way around campus while sucking down Ibuprofen and cough medicine. How was I supposed to respond?

Your student will get sick at college. The most recent National College Health Assessment found that in the previous year, more than half of college students sought treatment for health problems ranging from sinus infections and strep throat to migraines and mononucleosis. These numbers don’t even include the many students suffering from colds and flu who don’t visit the health center.

Does your student have the flu?

Influenza season typically peaks in mid to late winter, and the virus can spread like wildfire in campus residence halls. Symptoms include sore throat, coughing, fever and chills, and muscle aches. If your student is diagnosed within 48 hours of the onset of symptoms, they might consider a prescription antiviral medication such as Tamiflu. Otherwise you can coach them through self care:

  • Relieve fever and aches with acetaminophen (like Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil, others)
  • Use cough drops, nasal sprays and decongestants as needed
  • Take in lots of clear fluids (water, tea, broth, sports drinks)
  • REST

They should lay low until they've been fever-free for 24 hours, at which point they're no longer contagious. Coughing can linger for a week or two. Find more flu self-care tips at and

My friend Melissa’s son was just a few weeks into freshman year when he texted, “I have mono.” He refused to come home. “He was totally in the driver’s seat,” she remembered, and she had to face the fact that she couldn’t make him rest, drink fluids and stay home from class. Even though she wasn’t certain he had the judgment to handle the situation, she made it her goal to facilitate his independence. In the end she was able to speak with campus health center staff. “I was reassured to know someone else was aware of his illness,” she said.

As Melissa’s experience highlights, there are limitations to what we can do when our students are sick.

Some suggestions:

  • Be supportive — Your student may feel isolated and unhappy about being sick.
  • Be informative — Your student may need direction about over-the-counter medications, taking their temperature or when to go to the campus health center to see a nurse or doctor.
  • Be empowering — This is an opportunity for your student to take responsibility for themselves.
  • Be patient — You may feel frustrated by your student’s choices about whether to go to the health center or to a party.

You may also find yourself frustrated by lack of communication. Two federal regulations, FERPA and HIPAA, can create obstacles to getting information about your student without their mediation or written consent. (For more information and helpful advice, read "FERPA and HIPAA — Federal Laws and Student Privacy.")

Remember, even though college and medical staff are restricted in what they may tell you, you are not limited in what you can share with them. You can provide medical history and information that may help staff when treating your student.

When your student is home over break:

  1. Revisit the importance of getting enough sleep, eating well and physical exercise.
  2. Go over their health history with them, including hereditary conditions and major childhood illnesses.
  3. Check that their vaccination record is up to date (meningococcal meningitis vaccine is highly recommended for college students, as is an annual flu shot).
  4. Complete a HIPAA release form, then scan and save to your smartphones and computers. A free form can be downloaded from the HIPAA Journal website: click here.

Trust is essential.

First, trust that — with some guidance from you — your student will rise to the occasion and learn how to care for themselves. Second, trust in their school. Most campuses make health services accessible and accommodating to students, and the staff understands the demands of college life. Most schools have procedures in place for dealing with common health issues. Melissa was impressed that her son’s college informed his professors as soon as he was diagnosed and he was automatically given extensions on assignments.

What will you do when you get that call, text or email? I encouraged my daughter to see a doctor and helped her think through how to keep up with classes and activities while getting extra rest. I comforted her and sent a care package. But the most important thing I did was letting her know I was confident she could handle it on her own.

More important wellness resources:

If your student reports feeling stressed or depressed, encourage them to seek help on campus immediately.

Scott Sager, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York, is the father of two daughters, one in college and the other a recent graduate. With past lives as a social worker, preschool teacher and at-home dad, he brings a broad perspective to varied topics touching on family life, child development and education. He definitely gets how unpredictable the adventure of raising children can be and how every bit of information and each connection can help parents along the way.
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