Every September they arrive like clockwork: first-year university students. I see them sitting in the waiting room, looking a little lost and a little too young to be there alone.
Starting college is a huge shift for teens. It’s not just about new timetables and lectures – it’s about learning that when the toilet roll runs out, there’s nothing left until they go to the shop and buy it.
It’s also about learning to take care of their own physical and mental health.
As a GP and mother of three children (aged eight, 11 and 15, so not quite ready for university yet) the last thing I would say to another parent is to try not to worry, because of course we do . I also wouldn’t advise anyone to be blasé, because while we may try to distance ourselves, a little judicious advice and help goes a long way.
So what do teens need to know?
Starting college is a huge shift for teens. It’s not just about new timetables and lectures – it’s about learning that when the toilet roll runs out, there’s nothing left until they go to the shop and buy it
The basics – get all essential vaccines and find a new GP
My first piece of advice is to make sure they are up to date on ALL their vaccinations. One in eight teenagers starts university without having the MenACWY jab, which protects against four types of meningitis. It is routinely offered to 14-year-olds (in year 9), but if you think your teenager has missed it, speak to your GP.
Getting through a dose of fresher flu
When students arrive for their freshman year, there is often a wave of bugs, collectively known as the freshman flu.
For many teens, it’s the first time they’ve had to deal with an illness on their own, so it can be scary. But the advice is the same for any common viral respiratory illness: drink fluids, rest and use paracetamol if necessary.
Symptoms may include coughing, sore throat, runny nose and fever. Usually you don’t have to worry and it will go away on its own after a few days. If symptoms worsen or include severe headache or vomiting, cold hands and feet, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light, or a rash that does not go away when you press it under a glass (this is called a non-blanching rash), seek urgent medical attention. Always be careful.
Also check they are up to date on all their boosters – the three-in-one for diphtheria, tetanus and polio, and the MMR, which vaccinates against measles (the UK is currently experiencing an outbreak), mumps and rubella.
The HPV shot, which protects against the cancer-causing HPV virus, should also be given in year 9, but some children miss it. Again, discuss this with your GP. If your teen has already left, they can ask their new doctor about all these vaccinations.
This leads to my next advice: have them register with a local GP as soon as possible.
This is essential as it is crucial to access ongoing care from both hospital consultants and mental health teams. You now know where they will live, so this can all be done online.
You can find a local GP practice by typing ‘find a local GP’ into Google. The biggest hit would have to be the GP locator page of the NHS website, which allows you to search for practices by postcode. Most have a website where you can register, but this can also be done in person.
Your teen may still need to come to the practice for an initial assessment before he/she can make appointments and receive prescriptions.
The NHS app is also useful for viewing your health record, looking up blood test results and ordering repeat prescriptions if necessary.
I also recommend getting them registered with a local dentist and making sure they buy a home first aid kit.
How to control long-term conditions
Many teenagers receive specialist care from a hospital team – it can be anything from asthma or diabetes care to inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or mental health care.
It is best to bring this up during the initial examination as soon as you have registered with the new GP. The doctor must then be able to make a referral to a local team.
Getting to know a new group of doctors can be tricky. The temptation may be to stay at home with the team, but easy access to checks, advice and support is very important.
If your teen runs out of prescription medication, depending on what it is, a local pharmacy can provide them with an emergency supply until a new prescription can be obtained.
Difficult conversations that need to be had
It is a fact of life that teenagers, if given the chance, will experiment with drinking, sex and even drugs.
While I wouldn’t encourage a laissez-faire approach, a hard line is likely to be counterproductive. Make sure they know they can come to you or – if necessary – call you at any hour of the day if something goes wrong.
And if you get an emergency call, wait until the dust settles before suggesting that drinking that much (or whatever it was) isn’t the best idea.
Open communication is key. Try talking about things like contraception, consent, sexual health testing, drinking and drug use, which are part of everyday life. Use news events or TV shows as a springboard for conversations.
Parents often come to contraceptive appointments with their teenager (almost always mothers and daughters). I recommend they make sure they have a supply of whatever they use.
They should know where the local sexual health clinic is and if they are sexually active, they should get tested every three months or if there is a new partner. Some clinics distribute free condoms. Emergency contraception is available with a prescription from your GP or sexual health clinic, and free from many pharmacies.
In general, try to figure out how much help is still needed. Some children may be left to fend for themselves, while others may need to receive a daily text message to remind them to take their tablets.
Eventually they will learn how to do it all themselves. And while I don’t think you’ll ever really stop worrying about your kids, you might be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Nights out that led to intensive care
Sophia Spiers, 19, contracted fatal meningitis in March – seven months into her first year at the University of Manchester – which led to a fortnight in intensive care.
‘I had celebrated my 19th birthday and had been going out a lot,’ says Sophia from Hertfordshire. “Maybe that’s how I overheard it.”
The ordeal started when she woke up feeling extremely sore all over.
“I started getting violently ill,” she says. ‘I thought it was just a stomach flu, but then I couldn’t see or hear properly anymore.’
Sophia Spiers, 19, contracted fatal meningitis in March – seven months into her first year at the University of Manchester – which led to a fortnight in intensive care
The next day Sophia felt even worse and called her parents, who then called NHS 111. They advised her to go straight to the emergency room.
She was diagnosed with meningitis, a disease spread by close contact and thus one of the biggest health risks for young adults in their first year of university.
Although Sophia had been vaccinated for most strains, she had not had the meningitis B vaccine as it was introduced for children in 2015. It is currently only available for teenagers or adults and costs up to £300.
“The infection damaged my hip joint and I also lost my hearing in one ear,” says Sophia. ‘It could have been a lot worse. Other forms of meningitis are more common, so if you have not yet had a vaccine for that, the so-called MenACWY vaccine, ask for it before university.’
For more information about meningitis, visit meningitisnow.org.