University of Mississippi freshmen Jessica Ellefson, 19, spent her summer planning her transition to college life. She thought she had every possible situation covered, but never planned on getting sick.
“I was frustrated during the second half of the first semester,” said Ellefson, “because it seemed like I was always sick. Just when I thought I was finally over it, something else would come up, leaving me sick once again. I didn’t understand why this kept happening, and it was definitely not how I wanted to spend the first part of my freshman year.”
At the time, Ellefson felt like she was alone, but sickness is something almost every college student faces, especially during the fall semester of their freshman year.
Dr. Travis W. Yates is the director of student health services at the V. B. Harrison Health Center at Ole Miss. Originally from Carroll County, Mississippi, Yates attended Ole Miss studying pharmacy. After graduating, he did 10 years of internal medicine in Clarksdale, then worked in the emergency department at Baptist Hospital for 17 years.
Wanting less stress and a slower paced life, he transitioned to the university health center, where he has been working for 10 years. While students are always at risk for illness, Yates said the fall semester is the busiest time for the Health Center.
“The fall is just always very busy, and certainly in October and November until we get out for the Christmas break,” he said. “During this time, our staff was seeing about 160 students a day.
“I am not really sure why, but spring semester is not usually as busy for us. Now, we only see about 110 to 120 students a day, which is still a lot of students, but not as much as the fall semester.”
During these busy times, health center doctors treat many of the same illnesses.
“Upper respiratory type systems, which include cough, nasal, chest, and ear congestion, and sore throat, are the most frequent presentation of illness we have,” Yates said. “After that, we also do a lot of women’s health and treat STDs in both males and females.”
Yates said mental health issues are becoming more common. “We have lots of students with anxiety and depression and those types of things,” he said. “When I came here 10 years ago, I don’t remember students complaining much about those things, but now it has really gotten to be frequent.”
Yates said in mid-January through February, the flu dominates medical issues. “That has kind of died out now, but is a very common illness we see among students during that time,” he said.
There are many reasons why students develop illnesses in college, but Yates said the main reason is close proximity to multiple contacts.
“When students were in high school, they were only around about 100 people a day,” he said. “When you come on campus, students are now around about 24,000 other students, and they are always within close contact with one another.
“They are always going from one classroom to the next, and the exposures are coming from all parts of our country. When someone goes to class Monday morning, the person they are sitting by could have been in Las Vegas, Miami, Chicago, or New York over the weekend, so that makes the campus just a melting pot of multiple different exposures.”
Yates said students sometimes become frustrated because it seems they are constantly sick during their freshman year of classes. “They are constantly around these multiple exposures that they have not yet become accustomed to,” he said.
In college, it is hard to miss classes, because there is a chance of falling behind or missing assignments, but Yates offers the same advice to students.
“If they have a communicable disease that causes them to have fever, we advise them to stay out of class, because you will spread it to everyone else,” he said. “Now I know some people do that, and some people don’t, and that depends on the professors’ attendance policies for students.”
Yates also said not everyone should miss classes. “If everybody with a cough and sniffle decided they were going to stay home and not go to class, then you would only have 20 percent of the students in the class, because everyone always has a cough and sniffle. I have to always encourage class attendance, unless the student has the fever, and the symptoms are more severe.”
Since staying healthy is important for students, Yates said be careful how you cough. “Our student body needs to develop the habit of not coughing out into the air, but instead coughing into their elbows, along with always washing their hands,” he said. “Also, if they know someone is sick, do not be around that person. If your friend is sick, do not go visit them. It goes both ways, because then if you are the one sick, you should try to stay away from others.”
Even if all of these precautions are taken, Yates said they can only help so much. “It is a futile effort if you think you can just come up with 10 rules to prevent getting sick,” he said. “If that were possible, we would have done that years ago, but still take these precautions, because they will help.”
Yates said when a student gets sick with severe systems like a fever, weakness, or they begin throwing up, the most important thing they can do for their health is to visit the health center and receive attention, along with practicing other precautions, so they receive the right treatments to be healthy soon.