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Have a healthy start to student life
7:00am Saturday 8th September 2012 in Health
No doubt there'll be a few tears when teens fly the nest and head off to university for the first time. This health guide for new students will help keep them well.
By Abi Jackson
In a few weeks, teenagers all over the country will be heading off to university for the first time.
As well as being exciting, fleeing the nest and embarking on this new phase can be an anxiety-ridden time too - for both teens and the parents they're leaving behind!
Having to deal with their own finances, manage busy timetables, and get to grips with living in a whole new town with new people can be overwhelming; health and wellbeing might be the last thing on a new student's mind.
But looking after your body and mind is just as important as getting those grades.
Dr Usha Sharma, a GP at BMI The Princess Margaret Hospital, Windsor, has seen first-hand the health complaints that most commonly crop up among this age group.
"Going off to university is an exciting time and everybody should enjoy it," she says.
"But it's also a good idea to take a step back and consider how you're looking after yourself, too."
Here are five key categories all students should be aware of, and Dr Sharma's top tips for each.
Socialising is a big part of uni life, and for many students this means drinking.
While it's normal for young people to enjoy a drink, as Dr Sharma points out, too much alcohol can impact on your health in a number of ways.
"My blanket advice is that anything in moderation is OK. But drinking to excess is going to have a harmful effect on your body and mind."
First and foremost, drinking costs money. If too many nights out leave finances very tight, as Dr Sharma warns, this could lead to additional worry and stress - especially if you run out of funds before you're half-way through term.
"Alcohol is a depressive. It gives you a high, which means afterwards you'll experience a drop in your moods," says Dr Sharma.
"Then there are hangovers - you might struggle to get up and attend lectures and do your work the next day."
Drinking extremely heavily carries serious long-term health risks, including liver damage. Also, mixing drinks and binge drinking puts you at risk of alcohol poisoning, which can be fatal.
"Being very intoxicated also puts you at greater risk of doing yourself physical harm," adds Dr Sharma, referring to the hundreds of students who end up in casualty after a heavy night out.
Make sure you stay with friends so you can keep an eye on each other and make your way home together. Avoid mixing your drinks and pace yourself - it's a good idea to alternate with a soft drink or water.
:: Diet and exercise
There's so much going on when you first start uni; diet and exercise might be the last thing on many new students' minds. But the importance of these things to your overall health and wellbeing should not be underestimated.
"I've seen lots of undergraduates whose worried parents have brought them into the surgery to see me," says Dr Sharma.
"The main complaint is usually tiredness. Often when I investigate a little, I'll discover they're not getting much sleep, are undernourished and not exercising regularly."
Such tiredness can affect your ability to concentrate and focus on work and will lower moods. You could also be more prone to feeling run down and picking up ailments, as your immune system won't be at its best.
Ensuring you have some regular exercise is crucial. "See if your campus has free or subsidised gym facilities," Dr Sharma says.
"Or join a university sports team, like netball or hockey, then you can socialise at the same time.
"Exercising with a friend will help you stay motivated.
"And of course, the easiest and least costly way to exercise is by going for brisk walks or jogs."
As for diet, Dr Sharma acknowledges that most students are unlikely to have super healthy meal plans - due to lifestyle, time and finance.
However, she advises students to try and eat well for at least four days out of each week - packing in fruit and veg, complex carbs like pasta or a jacket potato, and protein.
"Pizza and cola all the time isn't advisable," she says, "but in balance, it won't be too bad.
"If students are on a tight budget, I'd advise them to make sure their first meal of the day is the most nutritious.
"A good cereal needn't cost very much, and even some fruit and yogurt."
:: Sexual health
"Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are on the increase," says Dr Sharma, stressing that this is something every young person should be aware of.
"My first advice would be for all new students to find out where their nearest STD clinic is," she says. "That way you won't have to go to your university GP. Everything at the clinics is dealt with confidentially, so nobody will know you have been - not even your family GP at home.
"And they are used to dealing with sexual health, so you'll be treated with respect."
It's a good idea to go for tests at the start of term, rather than waiting until you are worried you've caught something, as some STDs don't always cause physical symptoms.
One example is chlamydia - a male might only have mild symptoms or none at all, but they could still pass the infection on to a partner, which for females could lead to fertility complications further down the line.
"A lot of the tests these days are non-invasive, so you shouldn't let fear of the tests put you off," says Dr Sharma.
The same is true for treatment - many STDs are easily treated with a course of antibiotics, but getting them detected early is important.
Dr Sharma's next advice is that girls make sure they are vaccinated against Human papillomavirus (HPV) - doing so could dramatically reduce their risk of cervical cancer - and reminds everybody, male and female, to use condoms and contraceptives.
:: Meningitis and other contagious illnesses
Living, working and socialising together, students are what's known as a 'close community' - which means when somebody has an infectious disease, chances are others will too.
These include tonsillitis/glandular fever and flu, which, not to be confused with a common cold, will leave you very unwell.
At-risk groups can ask for flu jabs, but there are no vaccines for glandular fever.
"If you have a sore, swollen throat and get very unwell, see your GP then make sure you get plenty of rest," Dr Sharma advises.
Teenagers are one of the most at-risk groups for meningitis C, which can be fatal if not treated immediately.
Most UK teens will have been vaccinated at school, but if they weren't, it's not too late.
"Go to your GP and ask for the vaccine," says Dr Sharma. "Once you've had it, you'll be protected for life."
Being aware of the symptoms is also important, and these typically include a fever, severe headache and drowsiness, vomiting, stiff neck, and the tell-tale red rash.
Another immunisation this age group should consider, advises Dr Sharma, is the MMR jab, which protects against measles, mumps and rubella. Again, if you didn't have the jab as a baby and are concerned, speak to your GP.
:: Depression and anxiety
Lots of people think student life is all about fun, being carefree and not having any real worries. But university can be a tough time for many students, and the mental health of this age group should not be ignored.
Worries about finance, keeping up with workloads, social anxieties and even severe homesickness are all common factors that could lead to depression and anxiety.
"Being aware of student mental health issues is very important," says Dr Sharma.
"Most will have left home for the first time, and homesickness is something we cannot ignore.
"Other common reasons for depression and anxiety can be loneliness and difficulty making friends, leading to social isolation to some extent."
The pressure of keeping up with studies can also lead to problems. "Not everybody finds it easy to be self-motivated," says Dr Sharma, "and there could be issues there."
Drug and alcohol abuse are also major risk factors.
"Classically, in this age group, people are unlikely to come and ask for help and say 'I'm depressed'," says Dr Sharma. "More likely, the signs will present as poor sleep, lack of motivation, not turning up for lectures and tutorials."
Making friends and building a support network is important.
Dr Sharma also advises students not to underestimate the impact that their lifestyle, diet and sleeping habits will have on their moods and anxiety levels, and new students should find out about the support services available at their campus, so they know where to go should they find themselves struggling.
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