Any college student knows close contact isn't really optional. When you're sleeping inches away from a roommate (or two or three), and sharing restrooms, showers, desks, and dining space—and sometimes even swapping spit—germs are bound to spread. Indeed, bugs like upper-respiratory infections, colds, and, on the more serious side, mononucleosis and meningitis, tend to flourish on college campuses.
"Fortunately, most of these illnesses aren't life-threatening," says Alan Glass, director of student health at Washington University in St. Louis and president of the American College Health Association. "But they do cause students to miss school, and if it's a critical time in the semester, just a few days can make the difference between an A or a B."
You can, of course, protect yourself by getting the immunizations required by your school. But beyond that, there are steps you can take to stay healthy. Consider these strategies to avoid catching what everyone else has:
Don't wash your dishes where you brush your teeth. You wouldn't bring food into the restroom, so don't bring dishes, either—find a utility sink in your dorm building. Otherwise you're at risk for diarrhea-causing norovirus. "Bathroom surfaces get contaminated quickly and easily," says Craig Roberts, a physician assistant with University Health Services at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Any gastrointestinal infection, such as E. coli or salmonella, is a risk in that situation, but norovirus is the big one. It's highly infectious and easy to spread."
Don't share towels. Contact sports—especially football—are a fertile breeding ground for staph infections, including methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, says William Schaffner, chair of Vanderbilt University's department of preventive medicine. If you're on a team, shower after every practice or game and don't share towels—doing so is a prime way the infection spreads. MRSA tends to enter the body through cuts and bruises on the skin, so if you notice red bumps or an unusual mark, says Schaffner, "don't play with it, don't ignore it, and have it inspected."
Disinfect that sweat. It's unusual but not unknown to contract a serious infection such as MRSA at the gym, Schaffner says. Use a towel and disinfectant spray to clean any machine you've used, and if the treadmill looks suspect—with remnants of sweat—wipe it off before you begin, too. If you hit the water fountain post-workout, don't let your lips touch the nozzle.
Don't share glasses, water bottles, or utensils. Taking a sip of someone else's drink or tasting their meal—especially with their fork—is a key way infections like mono spread, Roberts says.
Don't hang out with smokers. Bacterial meningitis is spread through close contact with infected people—specifically through nose and throat secretions. Second-hand smoke, crowded living conditions, and shoulder-rubbing places like bars increase your risk of infection. "If you're standing within a foot or two of people, laughing and singing, that close contact will promote the spread of the bug," says Schaffner. Smoke can carry meningitis germs. Needless to say, being a smoker raises the risk. Moreover, smoking inflames the mucus membranes in the throat, making you more susceptible to infection.
Hold off on big health decisions. Many college freshmen are determined to reinvent themselves—often too determined, Glass says. "We see students who are on chronic medications—for asthma, for instance—decide they're going to stop those medicines when they get to college," he says. That's neither safe nor smart. Don't make major medical decisions by yourself; consult a doctor first.
Ditch your friends when they're sick. Don't make plans with someone who's coughing or sneezing. And if that person happens to be your roommate? Adopt "you stay on your side, I stay on my side" as your mantra, Schaffner says. "Girls cuddle—three or four of them will jump onto a bed together and study," he adds. "If someone isn't feeling well, keep as much distance as possible, and stick to a hands-off approach."
Don't let love—or lust—make you reckless. There's no way to tell for sure if someone has a sexually transmitted disease, and often, the infections are symptomless. That means you should always use a condom. And remember, the more sexual partners you have, the greater your risk of infection, Roberts says. "There's an unfortunate myth that STDs only happen to bad people," he says. "You really can't make any accurate judgments about whether someone's going to have one of these diseases."
Bring a thermometer. Knowing whether you have a fever—and if so, how high—will help determine how sick you are and how soon you need to be seen by a doctor. In fact, that's the first question students are asked when they call the University of Wisconsin health center, Roberts says. "We have an on-call system for evenings and weekends, and part of what we have to figure out is whether students can wait until the next morning to come in or whether they need to head right to the emergency room," he says. "We ask if they have a fever, and they say 'maybe,' because they have no way of checking." Digital thermometers that give a quick readout are under $10.
Keep hand sanitizer handy. Germs are often spread through surfaces, like the keyboards in computer labs—you touch something that's infected, then put your hand in your mouth or eyes, and suddenly you're sick, too. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer after you compute, or after doing a lot of touching in a public place, like opening doors and pressing elevator buttons, Schaffner says. Alcohol is a drying agent, so a sanitizer with aloe vera may be easier on your hands.
Watch your feet. Drying between your toes after you shower—or swim—will help ward off athlete's foot, plantar warts, and other fungal conditions. Contrary to popular belief, flip-flops provide little more than a false sense of security, Roberts says. "For most people, it's more an aesthetic issue, with no proven health benefit," he says.