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Is Your Teen’s Immune System Ready for College?

What young people can do to prepare their immunity for a semester at school.

Is Your Teen’s Immune System Ready for College?

The immune system is the body’s defense system—a network of organs, cells, and biochemicals that protects the body against injuries and infections. The immune system is what clears away damaged cells and triggers the healing of tissues when there’s an injury like a cut or a bruise. It’s what identifies and attacks harmful intruders such as infections bacteria, viruses, and parasites. It’s what provides immunity against future infections by keeping a record of the work it has done in the past.

There are two main components to the immune system—the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. We are all born with systems in place that are prepared to heal injuries and respond to invaders. This is the innate immune system. Think of it as a general, all-purpose immune response.

Then there is the adaptive immune system (also known as the acquired immune system or acquired immunity). This is the part of the immune system that creates antibodies that respond to specific intruders and provide lasting immunity against disease-causing microbes it has already encountered. The adaptive immune system is constantly changing and evolving throughout a person’s life as the body encounters different disease-causing intruders—and vaccines that stimulate the production of antibodies for diseases we want to avoid.

The immune system and college
College campuses draw large numbers of people from different locations—and like any setting where we’re encountering large numbers of unfamiliar people, it’s a perfect environment for germs to spread.

In other words, college is a new experience for the immune system. Fortunately, there are a number of steps parents and young adults can take to prepare an immune system for this new experience. As with other aspects of a person’s health, one of the best things a parent and young adult can do is partner with a healthcare provider.

Vaccinations
Colleges and universities require students to have certain vaccinations. Other vaccinations are strongly recommended. One example are the bacterial meningitis vaccinations. The MenACWY vaccine protects against four types of bacterial meningitis. College students in many states in the U.S. are required to have this vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend this vaccine for all people, with the first dose given between 11 and 12 years of age.

The MenB vaccine protects against a fifth type of bacterial meningitis. It’s required at some colleges and universities in some states, recommended at others, and is also recommended by many healthcare experts. There have been a number of MenB infection outbreaks on college campuses in the past decade, which have resulted in several deaths, as well as amputations and other permanently disabling complications.

Check with your child’s HCP about what vaccinations they have received to ensure they are up to date on recommended vaccinations—including the annual flu shot. If there are any your child has missed, your HCP can get them caught up.

Prescriptions, existing conditions, and mild illnesses
If your child has any existing health conditions—asthma or food allergies, for example—make sure they have all the information they need to manage the condition while they are away from home. Your checklist for this should include:

  • Health insurance paperwork
  • Where they can fill their prescription
  • Where to seek care in an emergency
  • Where to go for routine appointments

They should also pack a wellness kit containing basic first aid supplies they might need for minor illnesses and injuries. This kit should contain things like adhesive bandages, antibiotic ointment, cold medicine, and NSAIDs.

As a parent, it’s also important to encourage overall health and wellness. Encourage young adults to eat a balanced diet, exercise, and get enough sleep. Encourage them to limit alcohol consumption, avoid smoking and vaping (as well as secondhand smoke), and practice safe sex. Also encourage good hygiene, especially hand washing.

College students should also check in with their mental and emotional health—college is a major transitional period, and it can be stressful.

These are habits that can help keep a young person healthy during a semester of college and build a good foundation for taking care of their health in the future.

Medically reviewed in October 2021.

Sources:
Christopher Garris. "Wound Healing and the Immune System." Harvard University. January 2, 2013.
Johns Hopkins Medicine. "The Immune System."
Merck Manual Consumer Version. "Acquired Immunity."
Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, et al. "The Adaptive Immune System." Molecular Biology of the Cell. 4th Edition. 2002.
The Immunisation Advisory Centre. "The immune system and immunisation."
Brittany Koskoszka. "Illnesses are easily spread and hard to avoid on college campuses." The Villanovan. February 23, 2017.
NHS. "MenACWY vaccine overview."
Immunization Action Coalition. "MenACWY Vaccine Mandates for Colleges and Universities."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Meningococcal Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know."
Meningitis B Action Project. "Meningitis B Cases & School Vaccination Mandates Tracker."
Sara Fludd. "Why Your Child Needs the Meningitis B Vaccine Before College." Johns Hopkins Medicine. July 16, 2019.
Heidi M. Soeters, Lucy A. McNamara, et al. "University-Based Outbreaks of Meningococcal Disease Caused by Serogroup B, United States, 2013–2018." Emerging Infectious Diseases, 2019. Vol. 25, No. 3.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Table 2. Catch-up immunization schedule for persons aged 4 months–18 years who start late or who are more than 1 month behind, United States, 2021."

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