College students and the flu
Every year, the flu spreads across college campuses nationwide. Close living quarters, shared restrooms, and a lot of social activities make a college student more likely to catch the flu.
This article will give you information about the flu and college students. This is not a substitute for medical advice from your health care provider.
Your head is throbbing. Your throat is burning. You're coughing nonstop, and your whole body aches. This is no run-of-the-mill cold. You may have the flu. Let's talk about influenza, also known as the flu. Winter is a time for sledding, snowball fights, and flu. Every winter, millions of Americans come down with this respiratory ailment and feel absolutely miserable. Like the common cold, the flu is caused by a virus. But with the flu, it's the influenza virus that makes people so sick. The flu virus comes in a few different forms. Influenza A is most common between early winter and spring. You can catch influenza B year-round. Swine flu, or H1N1, is a specific type of influenza A. You catch the flu from someone who has it. When people with the flu sneeze or cough, they send a spray of droplets filled with the flu virus into the air. If you're unlucky enough to be nearby, you could breathe in those droplets. Or, you might touch a surface that the droplets have fallen on and then touch your nose or mouth. Two to three days later, the first flu symptoms will appear. Usually you'll start running a fever. Then you'll feel achy and tired. You may have the chills and feel sick to your stomach. After a couple of days, the sore throat and cough will set in. So, how do doctors treat the flu? Because a virus causes the flu, antibiotics won't treat it, they only kill bacteria. There are antiviral medicines, but you need to start taking them within the first 2 days after your symptoms appear. Until the illness runs its course, help yourself feel better by getting a lot of rest and drinking extra fluids. You can take an over-the-counter cold medicine to relieve your congestion and cough. Tylenol, Advil, or Motrin can bring down your fever and take some of the pain out of your sore throat. Aspirin isn't recommended during the flu, especially under age 18, because it could increase the risk for a rare, but serious, condition called Reye syndrome. By itself, the flu usually isn't harmful. But it can make existing conditions like asthma and breathing problems worse. In older people or those with a weakened immune system, the flu can turn into pneumonia, bronchitis, and other more serious diseases. For most healthy people, the flu is a short-term annoyance. They're stuck in bed for a week or two, and then their symptoms go away and they're back up and around. But thousands of people each year get very sick from the flu, especially the elderly, young children, and pregnant women. Many are hospitalized, and about 36,000 people die from flu complications. To avoid getting the flu, eat well, get plenty of exercise and sleep, and practice good hygiene. Wash your hands often with warm water and soap or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Don't share cups, plates, or utensils, especially during flu season. And most effective, get your flu shot every fall to protect you through the whole flu season.
WHAT ARE THE SYMPTOMS OF THE FLU?
A college student with the flu will most often have a fever of 100°F (37.8°C) or higher, and a sore throat or a cough. Other symptoms may include:
- Runny nose
- Sore muscles
Most people with milder symptoms should feel better within 3 to 4 days and do not need to see a provider.
Avoid contact with other people and drink plenty of fluids if you are having flu symptoms.
HOW DO I TREAT MY SYMPTOMS?
Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help lower fever. Check with your provider before taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen if you have liver disease.
- Take acetaminophen every 4 to 6 hours or as directed.
- Take ibuprofen every 6 to 8 hours or as directed.
- Do NOT use aspirin.
A fever does not need to come all the way down to normal to be helpful. Most people will feel better if their temperature drops by one degree.
Over-the-counter cold medicines may relieve some symptoms. Throat lozenges or sprays that contain an anesthetic will help with a sore throat. Check your student health center's website for more information.
WHAT ABOUT ANTIVIRAL MEDICINES?
Most people with milder symptoms feel better within 3 to 4 days and do not need to take antiviral medicines.
Ask your provider if antiviral medicine is right for you. If you have any of the medical conditions below, you may be at risk for a more severe case of the flu:
- Lung disease (including asthma)
- Heart conditions (except high blood pressure)
- Kidney, liver, nerve, and muscle conditions
- Blood disorders (including sickle cell disease)
- Diabetes and other metabolic disorders
- A weakened immune system due to diseases (such as AIDS), radiation therapy, or certain medicines, including chemotherapy and corticosteroids
- Other long-term (chronic) medical problems
Antiviral medicines such as oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and baloxavir (Xofluza) are taken as pills. Zanamivir (Relenza) is taken by an inhaler. Peramivir (Rapivab) is available for intravenous use. Any of these may be used to treat some people who have the flu. These medicines work better if you start taking them within 2 days of your first symptoms.
WHEN CAN I RETURN TO SCHOOL?
You should be able to return to school when you're feeling well and have not had a fever for 24 hours (without taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or other medicines to lower your fever).
SHOULD I GET THE FLU VACCINE?
People should get the vaccine even if they've had a flu-like illness already. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months and older should receive the flu vaccine.
Receiving the flu vaccine will help protect you from getting the flu.
WHERE CAN I GET A FLU VACCINE?
Flu vaccines are often available at local health centers, provider's offices, and pharmacies. Ask your student health center, provider, pharmacy, or your place of work if they offer the flu vaccine.
HOW DO I AVOID CATCHING OR SPREADING FLU?
- Stay in your apartment, dorm room, or home for at least 24 hours after your fever goes away. Wear a mask if you leave your room.
- Do NOT share food, utensils, cups, or bottles.
- Cover your mouth with a tissue when coughing and throw it away after use.
- Cough into your sleeve if a tissue is not available.
- Carry alcohol-based hand sanitizer with you. Use it often during the day and always after touching your face.
- Do NOT touch your eyes, nose, and mouth.
WHEN SHOULD I SEE A HEALTH CARE PROVIDER?
Most college students do not need to see a provider when they have mild flu symptoms. This is because most college-age people are not at risk for a severe case.
If you feel you should see a provider, call the office first and tell them your symptoms. This helps the staff prepare for your visit, so that you do not spread germs to other people there.
If you have an increased risk of flu complications, contact your provider. Risk factors include:
- Long-term (chronic) lung problems (including asthma or COPD)
- Heart problems (except high blood pressure)
- Kidney disease or failure (long-term)
- Liver disease (long-term)
- Brain or nervous system disorder
- Blood disorders (including sickle cell disease)
- Diabetes and other metabolic disorders
- Weak immune system (such as people with AIDS, cancer, or an organ transplant; receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy; or taking corticosteroid pills every day)
You may also want to talk to your provider if you are around others who may be at risk for a severe case of the flu, including people who:
- Live with or care for a child 6 months old or younger
- Work in a health care setting and have direct contact with patients
- Live with or care for someone with a long-term (chronic) medical problem who has not been vaccinated for the flu
Call your provider right away or go to the emergency room if you have:
- Difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath
- Chest pain or abdominal pain
- Sudden dizziness
- Confusion, or problems reasoning
- Severe vomiting, or vomiting that does not go away
- Flu-like symptoms improve, but then return with a fever and worse cough
Brenner GM, Stevens CW. Antiviral drugs. In: Brenner GM, Stevens CW, eds. Brenner and Stevens' Pharmacology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:chap 43.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Influenza (Flu): what are flu antiviral drugs.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Influenza (Flu): prevent flu.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Influenza (Flu): key facts about flu vaccines.
Ison MG, Hayden FG. Influenza. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 26th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2020:chap 340.
Last reviewed on: 7/14/2021
Reviewed by: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.