Preparing Your Teen for College

Keeping them healthy while away from home

A young healthy looking college freshman smiles in the library surrounded by books.

Keeping them healthy while away from home

Going away to college is a major transition in life. Your teen can get the most out of the experience if he or she knows how to stay healthy. 

“Evaluate how able your teen is to care for their health, which involves a range of issues, from sleep to nutrition to exercise and self-control,” says Annemarie Selaya, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Coastal Medical Center, Hillcrest. “Staying healthy is important in college; getting sick means missed classes and missed experiences.”

Before packing up and heading to orientation, set your student up for success by taking these simple steps.

Pre-college health exam

Schedule your teen for a physical with their primary care physician to set up a health baseline before leaving and help identify any potential causes for concern. General physicals for school are also offered at Scripps HealthExpress locations throughout San Diego.

During the pre-college health exam, ask the doctor to touch on these four topics:

1. Exercise and nutrition

Discuss the importance of exercise and nutrition during college and making healthy choices. “Diets that lack basic nutrients, fruits and vegetables can result in decreased energy and focus and contribute to an unhealthy body weight. The ‘freshman 15’ is a reality that can be avoided with some education and planning,” Dr. Selaya says.

As for exercise, young adults are generally advised to participate in:

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week
  • Or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week
  • Muscle strengthening activities at least twice a week

Exercise doesn’t have to be complicated. Your teen can walk or bike to class or take advantage of the exercise and recreation facilities at the school.

“Many students feel they don’t have time to exercise because their schedules are so packed, but exercise is a big contributor to well-being,” Dr. Selaya adds.

2. Health risks

Review health-risk issues, such as smoking, drinking, eating disorders, mental health concerns and sexually transmitted infections or STIs.

While anyone who is sexually active can get an STI, the people most affected include young people between the ages of 15 to 24.

3. Medications

Make sure medications for chronic medical issues are up to date and discuss the refill process.

4. Health forms and immunizations

College health requirement forms should be filled out and immunizations should be current.

Vaccine-preventable diseases and outbreaks continue to occur on college campuses.

In California, state colleges recommend that students are current on a number of immunizations, including flu, measles and HPV.

Establishing care during college

If your teen plans to stay local, they should be able to remain with their current primary care doctor. If your teen needs to make a transition to a family or internal medicine physician, ask your pediatrician for recommendations within your network.

If your teen plans to go away for college, go through your options carefully and make sure they are covered and have easy access to health care.

Your child is eligible to be covered through your health plan up to the age of 26 even if he or she does not live with you or lives out of state.

Keep in mind health plans distinguish between in-network and out-of-network care. Out-of-network care is more expensive.

If your child plans to attend school in another state, he or she may have trouble finding providers that accept your health plan or are in-network. You have options, however.

Many colleges and universities offer student health plans to their enrolled students. The Affordable Care Act marketplace is another option to get health insurance.

What to know about health insurance

Health insurance is complicated and can be difficult to understand. Here are some insurance terms that your teen should become familiar with:


How much will have to be paid for each medical visit?


Does the coverage include care in the area where your teen will be living?

Specific coverage

Is there coverage for issues that might come up in college, such as sports injuries, mental health concerns, eating disorders and substance abuse issues?

Insurance card

Tell your teen to carry a copy of the health insurance card in their purse or wallet and make sure your child knows where they can go to receive health care while at school.

School-sponsored policy

A school-sponsored plan can be more comprehensive and cost-effective, so take the time to compare your policy and the one offered by the college or university.

Accessing health care

Help your teen find out where the health resources are on campus and what services are available at the health center on campus and nearby. Ask about:

  • After-hours care
  • Urgent care
  • Emergency care
  • Pharmacy services, including the nearest 24-hour pharmacy
  • Hospital locations 

See if your teen’s provider can send the campus health center a summary of your teen’s care, needed interventions, any restrictions or medications used. Your teen should also be able to answer health questions knowledgably about:

  • Medications (prepare a list of medications and include dosage and reason for taking them)
  • Allergies
  • Significant family medical history
  • Prior health issues and records

Health supplies for college students

Every student should have some basic health care supplies and equipment, including:

  • First-aid kit with bandages, antibiotic ointment, acetaminophen, ibuprofen and cold medications
  • Digital thermometer
  • Throat lozenges
  • Cold pack to reduce swelling 

Ask about signing a health release form so that you can talk with the nurse on campus. 

Basic life skills for college students

Knowing some vital life skills will alleviate stress for your teen and help him or her navigate the college experience. Go over a few basics, and both of you will feel more prepared. These topics include:

  • Grocery shopping
  • Cooking basics
  • Laundry
  • Basic car maintenance, such as how to change a tire and when a car needs air in the tires, oil or water

“Planning for that first year at college will help make this crucial transition easier,” says Dr. Selaya. “Simple self-management skills will set your teen on the road to independence and help instill habits that will last a lifetime.”

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