Common student illnesses

University life comes with a whole range of bacterial nasties - from the infamous freshers' flu, to mumps. So if you're feeling grim, and it isn't a hangover, here's what could be to blame.

students wearing germ masks

Students of the Hypochondria BA were looking set for first class degrees.

Freshers’ flu

This virus can spell a sorry end to your first few weeks of student life. Featuring a fever, shivering, headache, sneezing and a dry cough, it could even leave you bedridden for a few days.

Freshers’ flu doesn’t just afflict hard-up young people who drink snakebite. It’s the environment you’re in that creates the hotbed for infection. With hundreds of new students from around the globe coming together to begin university life, the resulting outbreaks of flu and other illnesses should come as no surprise.

As a fresher, you might be out to party – but the same can be said for all the bacteria and viruses that have come along for the ride. Poor diet, lack of sleep and stress can also make you more vulnerable, as it all conspires to weaken your immune system.

Deal with it: Short of steering clear of all the fresher fun, there’s little you can do. If you’re struck down get as much rest as you can, keep your fluids up, take paracetamol for your temperature, and stay warm. If you’re at all concerned, see your doctor (GP) for more advice.



There are two types of meningitis – viral and the more serious bacterial variety. The bacterial virus can develop rapidly, causing inflammation of the brain lining, and requires urgent medical attention. Children and young people are most at risk, which is why students should always be on the lookout for symptoms.

A stiff neck and severe headache should not be ignored, along with a dislike of bright lights, high temperature and vomiting. Also watch out for a rash that starts looking like tiny pinpricks and later turns to purple blotches. A meningitis rash will not fade when pressed (try using a glass tumbler against the skin).

Deal with it: The majority of people who pick up the viral infection, which can take weeks to develop, tend to recover without treatment. Antibiotics can help to prevent the spread of some forms of bacterial meningitis. Either way, it’s vital for a medical professional to identify what type it is at an early stage, and provide appropriate care.


Glandular fever

Coined by kids in the schoolyard as the ‘kissing disease’, this infectious virus can still graduate as you do to university. It’s passed on in saliva and from coughs and sneezes, which makes it tailor-made for student life. If you’ve already suffered from it, you’re immune from future infection.

Flu-like symptoms, such as fever and headaches, are accompanied by a sore throat and swollen tonsils, as well as swollen glands in the armpit and groin.

Deal with it: There’s no treatment for the disease, just ways to help with the symptoms. The first step is to see your doctor for a check up, blood test, and throat swab, and be sure to take lots of rest. Recovery tends to kick in after a week or so.



If your face has suddenly swollen up like a hamster with collagen implants. And it hurts. Really quite hurts. You may have fallen victim to mumps. Other symptoms include: a headache, painful joints and a temperature.

Mumps is caught in the same way as colds and flus so it’s pretty contagious and young people are particularly at risk. The only way to protect yourself from mumps is getting the MMR injection. Check with your parents to see if you got it as a child.

Deal with it: There’s currently no way of treating mumps once you’ve got it – apart from ye olde bed rest, painkillers, drinking loads of water and eating mushy foods. It’s highly contagious though, so you should quarantine yourself for at least five days after symptoms show.


Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)

If student life means more sheet action, it also means a greater risk of coming into contact with a sexually transmitted infection. You could be looking at anything from herpes to chlamydia – or even HIV.

Deal with it: When it comes to any kind of sexual activity, minimise your risk of infection by wearing condoms every time. This is the only form of contraception to protect against sexually transmitted infection as well as pregnancy. If you think you may have picked something up, or simply want a clean bill of health, visit your local sexual health clinic.


Mental health

Student life can be stressful at times. Factors such as workload and issues surrounding friendships or money can be intense. In some cases, the difficult feelings this creates can be hard to handle. If a student is already living with a mental health condition, such as schizophrenia or depression, this kind of unsettling environment can make existing problems worse.

Deal with it: If you’re simply feeling stressed or down, you’ll find just speaking to someone you trust will help take the load off your mind. Talking therapies play a vital role in dealing with mental health issues such as depression, so if you feel unable to confide in a friend then your student health centre can help.

Remember, your campus surgery and counselling services are there to be used. Make sure you register at the beginning of the academic year. If you’re worried about your health – be it physical or mental – talk to your doctor (GP).


Photo of mask students by Shutterstock

Next Steps

  • You can visit NHS Choices for more information. You can get quick advice when it's not an emergency on 111.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.


Updated on 29-Sep-2015