Beyond the “Freshman 15”: The Important Role of Vaccines in Healthy College Students

For years, the extent of the health advice given to college freshmen has been simple: beware the freshman 15, referring to the weight gain common among the first year away from home. But, there’s another health matter that freshmen should consider and take action on: immunizations.

The close quarters of college dorms and classes serve as a breeding ground for certain viruses and put students at higher risk of infection. To boost protection, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following vaccines for students entering college:

Meningococcal vaccines: Outbreaks of meningococcal disease (meningitis), a serious bacterial infection of the brain and spinal cord, have occurred on campuses throughout the country. To offer protection, a meningococcal vaccine is available and covers four strains of the disease: A, C, W, and Y. If this vaccine is received before 16 years of age, a booster shot should be received prior to college. Additionally, another meningococcal vaccine covering serogroup B was approved last year and should be considered for administration. Because of the increased infection risk on campus, many colleges require proof of vaccination, and many states have even mandated the immunization. The Immunization Action Coalition provides state specific information.

Tdap and Td vaccine booster: Tdap protects against pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, and diphtheria. Many children routinely receive one dose of the Tdap vaccine around age 11 or 12, however, if not received, college-bound students should receive the vaccine. In addition, every 10 years a Td vaccine booster is recommended to offer continued protection against tetanus and diphtheria.

HPV vaccine: Human papillomavirus (HPV) is the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States—so common that CDC says about one in four people are currently infected. When the virus is not cleared by one’s immune system, certain strains can be linked to serious health issues, including numerous types of cancers. The HPV vaccine protects against the human papillomaviruses that causes most cervical cancers, anal cancer, and genital warts. The vaccine, which is a series of three shots, is recommend for women through age 26, and men through age 21.

Seasonal influenza vaccine: The CDC recommends a yearly influenza (flu) vaccine for everyone 6 months and older. For college students, living in a dorm, as well the changes to eating and sleep patterns, can make them more susceptible to contracting the flu. Each year, students should receive the flu vaccine early in the season to decrease their likelihood of infection.

In addition to these vaccines, new students should also ensure that they are up to date with the full adult immunization schedule. Also, if traveling abroad, the CDC recommends students check their travel guide, and make an appointment to receive recommended vaccines at least four to six weeks in advance of their trip.

As college students prepare to leave home, it’s imperative they have protection from vaccine-preventable diseases. Consider immunizations a must-do on the college checklist.