What to Do When You Have the Flu

A professor's advice for sick college students.

Posted Jan 21, 2018

It's flu season, and it's nasty. On the news, we are hearing the strains are more virulent, and that in some cases the flu has been deadly. On college campuses, illness spreads like wildfire. I have always joked that teaching is like living in a petri dish. But really, it is.

Vladislav Muslakov/ Unsplash
Source: Vladislav Muslakov/ Unsplash

People are living and working in very close quarters, stress is on the rise, sleep is minimal, and healthy habits are not always evident even on the best of days.

In our 24/7 culture with everything on and buzzing all the time and with work schedules that bleed into home schedules, it is no wonder that college students often repeat what they have witnessed and seen modeled all their lives—adults who have been self-sacrificial, who have pushed themselves to extreme exhaustion, who have gone to work regardless, engage in little to no self care, and who have traipsed around their sick kids to accompany them at work when they could not stay at daycare, further infecting their own workplaces.

Over the years, I have routinely asked students to leave class who are visibly and audibly ill—coughing that sounds like a four-year-old with croup or more like a very loud barking dog, nonstop sneezing, when they tell me they were up all night vomiting, etc. I have also had students come to see me for appointments or during office hours presenting in the same way and I have turned them away, requesting that we reschedule. I wish more professors did this.

Sick students simply get sicker and put others at risk of becoming ill when they come to classes and appointments. Somehow, the more disembodied our decisions and the less we honor our bodies in health or in sickness, we think of ourselves and others as heroic and ambitious. I have started to think it's stupid and selfish. This point was driven home for me recently. For four years, I mentored a student who is HIV positive and healthy and vibrant. But the fact of the disease makes her body more susceptible to colds and flus. A student who is running a fever and coming to class coughing puts a student like this at terrible risk, and everyone else is still vulnerable as well.

So, here I have compiled suggestions for students who find themselves sick at school and for concerned parents who live far away and feel helpless:

1) Stay in your room when you are ill. If this means you must miss classes, email each of your professors, using good email etiquette, and inform them of this. When you return to classes, get all missed notes and announcements from several other students (you will have more perspective on what you missed if you consult with more than one student).

2) Ask a roommate or friend to drop off food items and medications as needed. 

3) Get a box of facial masks for your suite. Get better and you can get creative with the leftover ones next Halloween. 

4) Arrange for an appointment with your Student Health Services. If your campus does not offer this, seek care at a reputable urgent care clinic. You can find reviews online. 

5) You might try in advance, when you are well, to find a primary care doctor in the community since you are likely to have medical needs over the years you are away at college. And if you face any sort of injury or require medication for anxiety or depression or have other issues such a gynecological or gastrointestinal ones, you have your own doctor with whom you have established a rapport who can then get you in when you are ill. This will provide you with more continuity of care.

6) Use the time when you are ill to catch up on much needed sleep and rest. Netflix and chill by yourself. 

7) Use the time to make a list of self care practices you can employ when you are better that can help you stay healthy. This might include making commitments to: eat better, practice meditation and yoga, exercise, take vitamins, etc. Being sick gives us an opportunity to think about how we want to be well and what it might take to get there in terms of cultivating habits that honor our bodies. 

8) Always try to have the basics on hand that are non-persishable—such as broth, teas, ginger ale, rice, echinacea, Tylenol or something similar, anti-nausea medicine, band-aids, Mucinex or something similar, etc. 

9) As soon as you are better, go on a cleaning rampage. Wipe down surfaces, faucets, doorknobs and keyboards. Wash your sheets, duvet cover, blankets, towels, hats, gloves, scarves, clothes, etc. We all know what the floors look like in students' bedrooms. And, all this advice about sneezing into your elbow is great as long as you promise to wash your sweatshirt! 

10) Wash your hands often! Keep hand sanitizer with you. I cannot tell you the amount of times students tell me about being up, sick all night at the same moment they hand to me their papers. 

11) Last but not least, when you return to classes, please do not ask your professors if you missed anything. Of course you did. And if they're like me, they will simply send you this poem by Tom Wayman:

Did I Miss Anything?

"Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here we sat with our hands folded on our desks in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth 40 percent of the grade for this term and assigned some reading due today on which I’m about to hand out a quiz worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course has value or meaning

Take as many days off as you like: any activities we undertake as a class I assure you will not matter either to you or me and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel or other heavenly being appeared and revealed to us what each woman or man must do to attain divine wisdom in this life and the hereafter. This is the last time the class will meet before we disperse to bring the good news to all people on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom is a microcosm of human experience assembled for you to query and examine and ponder.

This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered but it was one place

And you weren’t here"

—Tom Wayman