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College students and the flu

Every year, the flu spreads across college campuses nationwide. Close living quarters, shared restrooms, and a lot of social activities make a college student more likely to catch the flu.

This article will give you information about the flu and college students. This is not a substitute for medical advice from your health care provider.



A college student with the flu will usually have a fever of 100°F or higher and a sore throat or a cough. Other symptoms may include:

  • Chills
  • Headache
  • Sore muscles
  • Runny nose
  • Fatigue
  • Diarrhea and vomiting

Most people with milder symptoms should feel better within 3 to 4 days and do not need to see a health care provider.

Avoid contact with other people and drink plenty of fluids if you are having flu symptoms.


Acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) help lower fever. Sometimes health care providers will tell you to use both types of medicine.

  • Take acetaminophen every 4 - 6 hours.
  • Take ibuprofen every 6 - 8 hours.
  • Do NOT use aspirin.

A fever does not need to come all the way down to normal. Most people will feel better if their temperature drops by one degree.

Over-the-counter cold medicines may relieve some symptoms. Throat lozenges or sprays that contain an anesthetic will help with sore throat. Check your student health center’s web site for more information.


Most people with milder symptoms feel better within 3 to 4 days and do not need to take antiviral medications.

Ask your health care provider if antiviral medicine is right for you. If you have any of the medical conditions below, you may be at risk for a more severe case of the flu:

  • Lung disease (including asthma)
  • Heart conditions (except high blood pressure)
  • Kidney, liver, nerve, and muscle conditions
  • Blood disorders (including sickle cell disease)
  • Diabetes and other metabolic disorders
  • A weakened immune system due to diseases (such as AIDS), radiation therapy, or certain medications, including chemotherapy and corticosteroids
  • Other long-term (chronic) medical problem

Two antiviral medicines are used to treat some people who have the flu. They are oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and zanamivir (Relenza). These drugs work better if you start taking them within 2 days of your first symptoms.


You should be able to return to school when you’re feeling well and have not had a fever for 24 hours (without taking acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or other medicines to lower your fever).


People should get the vaccine even if they’ve had a flu-like illness already. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone 6 months and older should receive the flu vaccine.

Receiving the flu vaccine will help protect you from getting the flu. The most recent vaccine also protects against swine flu.


Flu vaccines are often available at local health centers, doctor's offices, and pharmacies. Ask your student health center, doctor, pharmacy, or your place of work if they offer the flu vaccine.


  • Stay in your apartment, dorm room, or home for at least 24 hours after your fever goes away. Wear a mask if you leave your room.
  • Do NOT share food, utensils, cups, or bottles.
  • Cover your mouth with a tissue when coughing and throw it away after use.
  • Cough into your sleeve if a tissue is not available.
  • Carry hand sanitizer with you. Use it often during the day and always after touching your face.
  • Do NOT touch your eyes, nose, and mouth.


Most college students do not need to see a health care provider when they have flu symptoms. This is because most college-age people are not at risk for a severe case.

If you feel you should see a health care provider, call their office first and tell them your symptoms. This helps the staff prepare for your visit, so that you do not spread germs to other people there.

If you have an increased risk of flu complications, contact your health care provider. Risk factors include:

  • Chronic lung problems (including asthma or COPD)
  • Heart problems (except high blood pressure)
  • Kidney disease or failure (long-term)
  • Liver disease (long-term)
  • Brain or nervous system disorder
  • Blood disorders (including sickle cell disease)
  • Diabetes and other metabolic disorders
  • Weak immune system (such as patients with AIDS, cancer, or an organ transplant; receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy; or taking corticosteroid pills every day)

You may also want to talk to the health care provider if you are around others who may be at risk for a severe case of the flu, including people who:

  • Live with or care for a child 6 months old or younger
  • Work in a health care setting and have direct contact with patients
  • Live with or care for someone with a chronic medical problem who has not been vaccinated for the flu

Call your health care provider right away or go to the emergency room if you have:

  • Difficulty breathing, or shortness of breath
  • Chest pain or abdominal pain
  • Sudden dizziness
  • Confusion, or problems reasoning
  • Severe vomiting, or vomiting that does not go away
  • Having fever and a worse cough after flu-like symptoms seemed to improve
  • Flu-like symptoms improve but then return with fever and worse cough


Fiore AE, Fry A, Shay D, et al; Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Antiviral agents for the treatment and chemoprophylaxis of influenza -- recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR Recomm Rep. 2011;60:1-24.

Hayden FG. Influenza. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 372.

Updated: 8/29/2013

Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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