Ask the doc: What can students do to stay healthy while under stress?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

—Jamie K.*, Ashford University (online)

(*Name changed)

I spent a winter break working at Okemo Mountain as a lift operator. I was staying on a hill across the valley from the mountain and had a steep downhill drive to get to work. One morning after a fresh snowfall, I lost traction and slid into a ditch. After a kind man used his truck to pull my car back out to the road, I asked him: “What’s the best way to slow down my car in such a situation?” His answer? “Don’t drive so fast.” The moral of the story is that safe driving and good health are about preparation and prevention. Think about staying healthy during the semester and, chances are, you’ll succeed. Wait until it’s too late and…it will be too late.

No secrets here: Get enough sleep, be regularly physically active, eat well, wash your hands, limit your saliva sharing, get a flu shot, and avoid overindulging in intoxicants and smoke.


There’s compelling evidence that people who don’t get enough sleep are about 30 percent more likely to catch a cold than those who do. Sleep eight-plus hours a night, ideally going to sleep and waking up at about the same time most nights. I’m a firm believer, and the evidence supports me, that it’s better to get a full night’s sleep even if you haven’t finished your work. Go to bed, get a good night’s sleep, and find time the next day to get caught up. Cut back on whatever you’re doing instead of studying, and get your work wrapped up by an hour or so before a reasonable bedtime. Sleep helps you concentrate better and learn more efficiently. More attention to sleep means less time needed to accomplish the same amount of studying, reading, writing, etc.

Physical activity

Like sleep, regular physical activity has a positive effect on your mood. It can serve as a mental break from other pursuits and lead to more efficient study time.

Maintain a healthy diet

Eat some fresh fruits and vegetables. If you have the facilities, why not prepare a nice meal for you and a friend?

Wash your hands

You’d be amazed at the benefits of adding a little soap and water to your hands before touching your nose or face and before eating. This can prevent many illnesses. Also remember to dry your hands thoroughly.

Limit saliva sharing

Most illnesses are spread from person to person, especially common ones like colds, flu, and mono. Sharing things like food and drinks is nice. Try to do it in a way that limits the number of people that have contact with your food before you eat it.

Get a flu shot

Nothing to explain. Get a flu shot. You heard it here first. Actually, you probably didn’t. I sure hope not, at least.

Avoid overindulgence

I’m not trying to take all the fun out of your life. I’m just saying that when you overindulge, your decision making will be negatively affected. Your devotion to care and caution may slip a bit—or a lot.

Bonus piece of unsolicited advice, yours absolutely free!

Allow me to introduce you to the idea of productive procrastination: If you’re not going to work, spend the time doing something positive, like cleaning up your living space, working out, preparing a good-quality meal, or knitting toques for seafarers. You’ll feel better about the time away from the books and your quality of life will be improved.

Sometimes your luck is bad. Despite all your efforts to prevent illness, you might still get sick when the demands on you are high. It’s not the end of the world. If the stress is academic, get in touch with your instructors and dean ASAP. It’s not the first time this has happened. You can work it out.

Ask the doc: What’s a good way to avoid catching a cold when other students in class are sick?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

—Joshua S., Portland State University, Oregon(*Name changed)

Cold-causing viruses circulate readily in college communities, and they disrupt students’ academics and other activities, so it’s absolutely worth minimizing our exposure to them. We have easy ways to do that. Bear in mind, though, that sometimes, you’re just going to get sick. I often tell students: “If you don’t have time to catch a cold every now and then, you’re probably overcommitted.” Here’s what you need to know to make catching a cold a less frequent event:

How to avoid catching or sharing a cold

  • Wash your hands frequently: No other strategy is as effective, says the CDC.
  • Train yourself not to touch your nose or eyes unless you’ve just washed your hands; this also helps reduce your risk.
  • Stay home the first few days of being sick: Cold viruses are shed most heavily in the first few days of illness.
  • When coughing or sneezing, cover your mouth and nose with a strong tissue, or use this handy gadget called a Coughcatcher (see the next slide).
  • Do not take antibiotics; they do not prevent or treat colds. With no possible benefit here, the effects of taking antibiotics “for a cold” will be solely negative.

How colds are spread

  • Via our own hands: Cold viruses are sneezed, coughed, or breathed into the air and land on surfaces like desks and tables. Viruses can survive for hours on everyday surfaces. When we touch those surfaces, we get the virus on our hands. Those viruses can survive on our skin for two hours. When we touch our eyes or nose, we allow the virus to infect vulnerable cells. This is why frequent, thorough hand washing is so important.
  • Via droplets in the air that we inhale: Cold viruses can also be spread directly from person to person through respiratory droplets (microscopic germs that are sneezed, coughed, or breathed into the air).
  • Via children, directly or indirectly (sorry, kids): Children are thought to be the reservoirs of colds in communities. The viruses spread from young children to older siblings or adults, and then through school or work communities.

How to treat a cold

  • Colds get better without treatment after 5–10 days. Rest up, drink water and other healthy fluids, and try not to spread your virus to others.
  • Again, do not use antibiotics. Colds are caused by viruses. Viruses are different from bacteria. Antibiotics are not effective against viral infection, and they have downsides—both for you personally and for the community.
  • There is no compelling evidence to suggest that probiotics, zinc, vitamins, face masks, herbal products, or gargling are effective treatments for colds.

What a cold is and how a cold works

  • When health care providers and educators talk about the “common cold,” we’re referring to a specific type of illness. It is not the same as influenza (flu), pharyngitis (sore throat), sinusitis etc., though some of the symptoms can overlap.
  • A cold is a viral infection. More than 200 different viruses can cause colds, though about half of colds are caused by the rhinovirus.
  • When a cold-causing virus enters a cell, it hijacks the cell’s machinery and begins replicating itself, producing millions of copies. This infection triggers an inflammatory response in the body, which generates the characteristic symptoms of colds, like runny nose, nasal congestion, scratchy or sore throat, cough, and sometimes fever (this is more likely in younger people).
  • Not everyone develops symptoms every time they are exposed to a cold-causing virus. Children catch more colds than adults, suggesting that the body may develop some immunity to colds over time, though we never become fully immune.

What is a Coughcatcher and where do I get it?

Ask the doc: Is it possible to get too much sleep?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“Is it possible to get too much sleep?”

—Ana H., Towson University, Maryland

Not exactly. But are there circumstances in which the amount of sleep someone is requiring would be concerning? Yes.

It’s common to meet with students who are tired all the time and seem unable to get sufficient sleep. Most of the time, people who sleep a lot need to. Young adults generally need 8–9 hours a night, ideally on a fairly regular schedule (same bedtime and wake time). Straying from this can lead to “sleep debt.” Just like student loan debt, sleep debt has to be paid off eventually. The more you accrue, the more intensely your body will want to pay it down—by getting more sleep.

This starts with REM (dreaming) sleep. Do you know that sensation of falling asleep suddenly and immediately starting to dream? It can be quite disorienting, especially when it happens in class. (Not that I’d know about that. OK, maybe a little.) That’s a sleep-deprived brain desperately trying to do some catch-up.

If you don’t need the sleep, it’s usually pretty hard to sleep. I think most people are familiar with the experience of leaving school for a vacation and sleeping nonstop for the first several days. I certainly remember times that I woke up at 11 a.m., had a little something, went back to bed until 2 or 3 p.m., did a little something, took a 5 p.m. nap… you get the idea. After a few days, though, staying awake wasn’t so excruciating. After another few days, I was back to sleeping 9–10 hours a night. This was my body paying off sleep debt then resetting to a baseline rhythm. Once I’d done that, I didn’t have the intense appetite or need for sleep any more.

When people just can’t seem to get enough sleep, regardless of hours sleeping, including naps, we start to worry that there’s an underlying cause, such as mono or another illness. Psychological causes can also be at play, especially depression.

So can you get too much sleep? Usually when we feel the need to sleep more than the standard pattern, there’s a good reason. Generally, it’s a good idea to listen to your body.

If after 4–5 days of intense sleeping, especially if you don’t know why you need so much sleep and/or don’t feel that you’re getting any benefit from all the extra sleep, it might be time to talk with a medical provider and maybe get some testing done.

Ask the doc: Do I really need to get a flu shot?

Reading Time: 2 minutes

“Do I really need to get a flu shot?”

—Leah M., Michigan Technological University


An emphatic yes if you are in one of these categories:

  • You are at higher risk for complications from influenza; for example, asthma or any other chronic lung issue.
  • You are at higher risk for complications of infections; for example, if you are immune compromised because of illness (such as immune deficiency or diabetes) or treatment (some people with Crohn’s disease, for example, use medications that suppress the immune system).
  • You have sickle cell disease.
  • You are pregnant.
  • You are of American Indian or Native Alaskan descent.

A strong yes if you are in one of these categories:

  • You are a student in a residential setting. Young adults tend to congregate. When they congregate, they tend to share things like food and hugs and kisses. This kind of close interaction, wonderful as it may be in many regards, is very effective at transmitting illnesses.
  • If you like the idea of not feeling miserable for a week to 10 days. Influenza can be brutal. Flu symptoms include fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, muscle or body aches, headaches, and fatigue. Most students with flu are unable to attend class or even keep up with reading/studying for several days. Complications of influenza can include sinus infections, ear infections, pneumonia, and more serious conditions.

The influenza virus is highly contagious and has three particularly devious traits:

  • It can be spread in the day prior to onset of symptoms—before the affected individual feels sick enough to separate themselves from others.
  • It can be spread to someone as far as six feet away (cover that cough!). Here’s what the CDC website says: “Most experts think that flu viruses are spread mainly by droplets made when people with flu cough, sneeze, or talk. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
  • It can last a long time on surfaces; particles ejected by an uncovered cough or sneeze can land on a counter or tabletop and survive there for a day or two. If an unsuspecting person touches that surface, and then touches a mucus membrane such as the eye or mouth, they can get infected by the virus.

Does the flu shot have a downside?

There aren’t really any significant downsides to influenza vaccination. It is usually covered by insurance, or is inexpensive. It has minimal side effects: sometimes a little soreness in the arm for a day or two, sometimes some fever and mild muscle aches for a day. Each year, a new flu shot is available that provides protection from the influenza viruses that are expected to circulate widely that season. The 2015–16 flu shot was a very good match for the types of flu that were circulating. The match is not always perfect, but even if the flu vaccine doesn’t contain the influenza virus that you are exposed to, it may make an influenza infection less intense and shorter than it would otherwise have been.

Unfortunately, the protection we get from a flu vaccine wanes within a year. An annual vaccination is needed to get the best protection against the flu. On the plus side, young healthy people get a strong, relatively long-lasting immune response from influenza vaccine. Get yours in September before you are at greater risk of exposure and while supplies are plentiful.

+ Find fine flu facts (CDC)