Managing the Stress of Chronic Disease at College

Going off to college comes with its own built-in set of stressors. You're away from home, possibly for the first time. You have to get used to new surroundings, different people, and a lot more work than high school.

On top of all these challenges, if you're living with a chronic disease like diabetes, asthma, epilepsy, or arthritis, you'll also have to deal with the stress of managing your condition. Making doctors’ appointments, refilling prescriptions, and remembering to take your medications -- all these need to be penciled into an already overfilled calendar of classes, homework, and parties.

With so many young people living with a chronic disease today -- up to 17% by recent estimates -- colleges have gotten better at accommodating students with special medical needs. Leaning on your school's programs and services can make those first few months of college seem much less daunting.

Checklist for Managing Your Condition

Use this checklist for managing chronic disease at college. It will show you how to prepare before leaving home, where to turn for help while you're at school, and how to stay on top of your treatments so you can focus on what's most important -- your studies.

1. Get to know your college office of disability services. Visit this office at the beginning of your first semester. Let them know what special accommodations you'll need to help you get through the school year. You might request a single room or special diet. If you have trouble walking, you may need transportation. Let them know if you need someone to record or take notes for you during lectures, or if you need extensions on tests or papers. If your school doesn't have a disability office, ask the student services department to refer you to someone who can help you.

2. Create a circle of help. You might be embarrassed to tell a lot of people about your condition, but at least consider telling those closest to you, such as your roommate, professors, and resident advisor. Show them what to do in case of an emergency, like pointing out where you keep your asthma inhaler or your emergency contact information.

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3. Make sure you're insured. Check with your parents about the details of their policy before you leave, and find out whether it will cover you if you are out of state. You can also ask your college admissions department about buying a student insurance policy.

4. Check in with your doctor. Before you leave for college, visit your doctor for a checkup. Use the time to discuss any concerns you have about managing your condition at school. Work with the doctor to develop a treatment plan you can use while you're away. Also, ask for a referral to a doctor near your school. Stock up on a one- to three-month supply of insulin, inhalers, and whatever other medications and supplies you'll need. And find out where to refill your prescriptions while you're at school. Keep the phone numbers of your doctor at home, as well as a local doctor and hospital, in your dorm room in case of emergency.

5. Visit your college health center. Make an appointment at the beginning of the year to introduce yourself to the center and its staff. Familiarize them with your condition. Ask whether anyone on staff is specially trained to treat it. Give them a copy of your medical records so the doctor will know exactly how your chronic disease is being managed. Learn who to contact after-hours and the location of the nearest hospital in case you have an emergency.

6. Find support. Ask whether your college or town has a chapter of an organization focused on your condition -- such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation or the Epilepsy Foundation. Having access to a supportive group of people who understand what you're going through can be a big relief, especially when you're in a new place.

7. Stay healthy. Living in close quarters with people makes college a petri dish for infections. Before you go off to school, make sure you've gotten all the immunizations your school requires, plus the vaccinations your doctor recommends for your chronic disease. To avoid picking up a bug, don't share with your roommates too liberally. You can swap notes and clothes, but some things -- like your toothbrush, razors, eating utensils, and towels -- should be off-limits.

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8. Don't change your treatment routine. Now is not the time to suddenly decide you're sick of your treatment and want to switch to another drug. Never make any changes to your medication without first talking to your doctor. Skipping medication can lead to serious complications, especially for conditions that are managed day-to-day, like diabetes.

9. Pace yourself. Following up an all-nighter with a full day of classes is tough enough if you're healthy. But it can be brutal on your body when you've also got a chronic disease. If you're sleep-deprived, you could do something dangerous, like forgetting to take your asthma medication or sucking down a sugary drink when you've got diabetes. If you have epilepsy, a lack of sleep might even trigger seizures.

Even if you're feeling great and ready to tackle a full schedule today, tomorrow you could have a relapse and feel awful. Don't try to do too much. In fact, take on less work than you think you can handle. Then you can gradually add classes or activities as you feel up to them.

College can be overwhelming, especially when it's compounded with the stress of a chronic disease. Take it easy on yourself. While you're juggling work and the demands of your condition, set aside some time for yourself. Relax by hanging out with friends, going to the gym, or just sitting in a quiet place and meditating.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on August 13, 2017

Sources

SOURCES:

Perrin, J. The Journal of the American Medical Association, June 2007.

Children's Hospital Boston Center for Young Women's Health: "Impact of Chronic Illness on College Planning."

Haut, S. Neurology, November 2007.

U.S. Department of Education: "Students with Disabilities Preparing for Postsecondary Education."

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