Managing Chronic Health
Conditions in School
Resources & Tools for Living with Epilepsy, Diabetes & Other Chronic Conditions on Campus

Approximately half of all adults are affected by chronic conditions. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reports 117 million Americans experience symptoms from at least one of these long-term illnesses, and a significant number of these are high school and college students. Thankfully, most can be managed with medication and healthy lifestyles, meaning even the perpetually busy student can enjoy their school experience while managing an illness. The following guide looks at the most common chronic conditions and provides tips on balancing health and happiness from both an expert and a student with insider knowledge on what it takes to succeed.

Chronic conditions explored in this guide include:

Other examples include (but are not limited to):

  • Anemia

  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)

  • Bipolar Mood Disorder

  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

  • Chronic Leukemia & other cancers

  • Cystic Fibrosis

  • Depression

  • Eating Disorders

  • Endometriosis

  • Fibromyalgia

  • Heart Disease

  • Hemophilia

  • Hepatitis (chronic viral B & C)

  • Hemophilia

  • HIV

  • Hyperlipidemia

  • Hypertension

  • Hyperthyroidism or Hypothyroidism

  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)

  • Kidney Disease

  • Lyme Disease

  • Multiple Sclerosis

  • Obesity

  • Rheumatoid Arthritis

  • Schizophrenia

  • Sickle Cell Anemia

  • Ulcerative Colitis

  • Approximately 31 percent of American adolescents suffer from at least one chronic condition.

  • Three out of every 10 college students are considered overweight or obese according to the Body Mass Index (BMI).

  • Half of all students at community colleges report mental health issues.

  • Most people under age 20 with diabetes have type 1. As obesity rates in this age group climb, type 2 diabetes, which used to be typically seen in patients over the age of 45, is become more common in the under-20 age group.

Epilepsy at School

Neurology reports epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder, affecting seven out of every 1,000 people. Students with epilepsy face numerous challenges during college, but they don’t have to go it alone. Today’s campuses provide services and support systems for students with health conditions including shuttles, on-site pharmacies, special housing and accommodations. Students can also put measures in place to help themselves. The Epilepsy Foundation advises students to prioritize sleep, keep stress levels low, maintain a healthy diet, and ensure friends and family know about their condition and how to help in the event of a seizure.

Epilepsy Facts One in 26 people develop epilepsy at some point in their life. Anyone can develop epilepsy, though new cases are most prevalent in young children and older adults.

Scholarships for students with epilepsy

Transition to college with epilepsy

Picking a school and preparing for college is an exciting event in the life of any student. While those with epilepsy may need to weigh their health needs a bit more heavily when choosing a college, it’s important to remember there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. The questions a student with epilepsy needs to ask themselves revolve around their overall health and well-being. A couple to consider include:

Are transportation services available?

This is especially important for students who are unable to drive or are considering large, sprawling campuses.

Do the disability services available meet your needs?

This department typically oversees accommodations and helps students make adjustments for academic and personal needs.

Does the school train faculty and staff on proper procedure?

In case you have a seizure on campus, knowing that someone nearby knows how to best care for you is crucial.

Does the health center offer services you require?

Some schools have neurologists on staff and are able to refill prescriptions, while others are limited to basic procedures.

Learning with epilepsy

Aside from seizures, students with epilepsy may also contend with memory difficulties. This issue can affect the speed at which students process information and other cognitive functions, but many campuses are equipped to help. Along with other admissions documents, students should send a recent neurological assessment to the disability services center so it can be circulated as needed and in accordance with privacy laws to professors, residential advisors, and other staff to ensure students receive proper care.

Students can also reduce activities commonly associated with epileptic episodes. A study by the American Journal of Psychology found direct correlation between incidents and times when students are overly stressed or fatigued, engaging in irregular habits, taking on too much work outside academics, or drinking too much alcohol.

Lifestyle & social issues

Students with epilepsy may have to think about social activities and lifestyle choices differently than their peers, but being mindful of triggers and symptoms can go a long way in preventing a seizure. The Epilepsy Foundation notes that sleep deprivation has been strongly linked to epileptic incidents, so getting the recommended amount of sleep each and every night should always be a priority.

According to Epilepsy Foundation, the most common triggers associated with epileptic episodes include:

  • Flashing lights or visual patterns
  • Certain styles of music
  • High levels of stress
  • Drug or alcohol use

College epilepsy resources

Celiac at School

Because celiac disease stems from the intestine’s inability to process gluten, students who have been diagnosed with it must be vigilant about their food and drink to avoid a flare up from this genetic autoimmune disorder. Schools can help students avoid foods with gluten by ensuring all cafeteria meals are labeled and also serving gluten-free options. Providing housing with kitchen access allows students to prepare meals, while health centers with dieticians on staff can create meal-plans and shopping lists to help college students find quick, healthy options.

Students, too, can do their part to protect their health. Alerting health clinic staff is a good idea for students who want someone nearby to provide support and medical attention. Since students are typically strapped for time, finding celiac peers provides support and the opportunity to make gluten-free meals together. Because those with celiac disease are at a higher risk for developing issues such as diabetes or lactose intolerance, maintaining a healthy diet is of utmost importance.

Celiac Facts Individuals diagnosed with celiac disease between the ages of 12 and 20 have a 27% chance of developing an autoimmune condition. Approximately one out of every 133 Americans – approximately 1% of the population – has celiac disease.

Scholarships for students with celiac

Eating tips and advice for students with celiac

Maintaining a proper diet can be challenging if students don’t plan ahead, and this starts with selecting a celiac-friendly school. Udi’s Gluten Free maintains a ranking of the Top 10 Gluten-Free Friendly Colleges, citing dining halls with full-time dieticians, flexible meal plans, training for all staff, and individualized accommodations. Ways students can prepare for being gluten-free in college include:

Make sure cooking utensils aren’t cross-contaminated by non-celiac roommates.
Meet with the school’s dietician to learn about gluten-free options.
Don’t assume a meal you ate at home is made exactly the same at school. Ask how it was prepared and if the chefs changed gloves before preparing it.
Keep an emergency stash of gluten-free food in case there’s nothing suitable on offer.
Communicate with roommates, friends, and the dining hall about your restrictions to make them aware the importance of keeping food separate.

Social considerations for students with celiac

Students who must be vigilant about everything they put in their body can sometimes feel an added emotional pressure to blend in with their peers. Rather than worrying about others, here are some ways students can make sure they eat healthily without feeling like they are drawing attention to themselves:

  • If eating out, look at the restaurant’s menu online or call to learn about celiac-friendly options.
  • If attending a dinner party, offer to bring a gluten-free dish.
  • If going to a bar, read up on celiac-friendly alcoholic beverages. The majority of beers contain gluten, but even some mixers may be off limits.
  • If traveling, stock up on gluten-free snacks and research the destination to scope out grocery stores and restaurants with options for celiacs.
  • If attending a school-sponsored event, discuss the menu ahead of time with catering staff or the school’s dietician to identify safe foods.

Celiac resource list

Diabetes at School

Monitoring glucose levels and administering insulin help manage diabetes, but oftentimes students contend with full and unpredictable schedules that make ensuring proper self-care a challenge. Developing a system of support and awareness with health service professionals at school can help students find balance while also establishing protocols for care if they have a low/high blood sugar episode. Alerting resident assistants and roommates is also a good idea, as these are the people students see most frequently. They should also introduce themselves to catering staff and determine diabetic-friendly food options.

Schools can also contribute to the health and wellbeing of students in a number of ways, including:

  • Providing a diabetes specialist at the health center, and having a list of local endocrinologists for out-of-state students.
  • Offering diabetic-friendly food at the dining hall and on-campus snack shops and cafes
  • Ensuring students have access to diabetic-friendly food at all hours.
  • Keeping emergency snacks throughout academic and residential buildings for emergencies.
  • Giving students access to a kitchen – or at least a refrigerator/microwave – in their dorm.
Diabetes Facts Diabetes Care reports that, of millions of college students who begin their higher education each fall, one out of every 300 has type 1 diabetes. Approximately 208,000 Americans aged 20 or younger have been diagnosed with diabetes.

Scholarships for students with diabetes

Transition to college with diabetes

Transitioning to college life is an empowering experience for students who use their new support systems and take adequate care of themselves. Stress and busy schedules have big impacts on a student’s A1C (blood glucose), so finding balance between academic requirements and self-care should be a priority as soon as students set foot on campus. Part of this system should include ensuring students have at least one to three months of diabetic supplies on hand, including blood glucose meters, batteries, and glucagon kits.

Diabetic students are also covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, meaning they qualify for accommodations. Some of these may include:

Access to a kitchen in residential areas
Housing close to the health clinic or dining hall
Extra testing time to allow for blood glucose testing or snacks
Special places to keep food or diabetic supplies around campus
Modified attendance policies

Social issues

Diabetic students can enjoy active and enjoyable social lives, provided they plan properly and know their limits. Heavy alcohol consumption can be detrimental to anyone’s health, but it’s particularly dangerous for those with diabetes. In addition to having the potential to rapidly lower blood sugar, it can also reduce body senses and make it more difficult for a student to wake up from hypoglycemic symptoms. The American Diabetes Association provides a set of guidelines for diabetic individuals planning to consume alcohol:

  • Never drink on an empty stomach.
  • Never replace a scheduled meal with alcohol.
  • Stay hydrated while drinking.
  • Test your blood glucose levels before and after drinking.

Eating & lifestyle

Students have two major considerations when it comes to food: what they eat and when they eat it. A lot of food on offer at a cafeteria may not be the best option for a diabetic, and busy class schedules can make it hard to eat meals and snacks at the same time each day. New York State’s Department of Health highlights the dangers of going too long without food, including rapid heartbeats, dizziness, anxiety, vision issues, weakness, headaches, or shaking. Here are our tips for finding balance:

  • Avoid foods with lots of carbohydrates and instead try to focus on protein-rich options.
  • Ask if an ingredient list is available.
  • Find out if there are any restaurants or cafes near school with suitable options.
  • Pack an emergency stash of food for times when you miss a meal.
  • Alert professors with no food/drink policies of your condition.

Resources for students with diabetes

Asthma at School

According to the American College Health Association, 9 percent of all college students have asthma. Although inhalers help lessen the effects, college students may experience more flare-ups, especially early in their time at school, due to changing environments. Because asthma is triggered by allergens and air pollution, adjusting to a new place can present unique challenges. The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention suggests students should avoid living with a roommate who smokes, as well as any spaces where pets, mold, dust mites, or other triggers may be present

Asthma Facts The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention estimates approximately 26 million Americans have asthma. During the 2001-2011 decade, the number of people with asthma in the U.S. increased by 28%.

Scholarships for students with asthma

Lifestyle for students with asthma

Many different things can trigger an asthma attack, so college students need to be especially vigilant. Some of the areas students should pay special attention in their day-to-day activities include:

Food

Lots of schools now offer special accommodations for students with food allergies, so don’t be afraid to ask what’s available. Keeping snacks on hand is also a good idea for emergencies.

Roommates

Whether sharing a dorm room or an apartment, alerting roommates and your resident assistant help lessen the chances of having a reaction to cologne or cigarette smoke.

Exercise

Exercise is great for mental clarity and physical strength, but excessive or intense routines can cause exercise-induced bronchoconstriction. The American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology suggests exercises that limit the chances of an attack, including swimming, walking, hiking, or biking.

Cleaning

One of the best ways students can limit attacks is by cleaning their spaces and removing dust-catchers. The American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology suggests students bring allergy-proof pillows and sheets and keep their personal items in plastic containers to limit exposure. It’s also a good idea to keep a container of cloth wipes to remove dust.

Asthma resource list

Lupus at School

As a chronic condition with a vast range of symptoms, lupus flares can be triggered in numerous ways. Because the condition seems to ebb and flow, students can find it difficult to set a routine and find consistency in their academic and social lives. Some of the biggest issues students contend with include joint or muscle pain, rashes, swelling, ulcers, exhaustion and photosensitivity.

Lupus Facts Lupus currently affects approximately 1.5 million people in the United States. Overwhelmingly, those diagnosed with lupus are women (9 out of every 10 cases), according to the Lupus Research Institute.

Scholarships for students with lupus

Lupus social & lifestyle issues

Adjusting to the long and late hours of college while still prioritizing healthy habits is one of the biggest hurdles for students with lupus, especially when allowing for inevitable flares that disrupt day-to-day life. Although much is still unknown about the condition, researchers have identified numerous triggers that students can work to avoid. These include:

Avoid exposure to UV rays

Did you know that UV rays are at their worst between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and in areas with higher altitudes? Photosensitivity in those with lupus manifests itself in rashes, muscle and joint pain, fever, and fatigue, so students should make sure they’re covered up when walking to class and try not to sit under fluorescent lights for too long.

Keep a healthy diet

Students with lupus are at an increased risk for inflammation, so maintaining a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet can help offset the effects of a flare up.

Avoid stress

Stress has been shown to inflame the symptoms of lupus, making it vital for students to find balance in their schoolwork and work toward good emotional and mental health.

Transition to college with lupus

Student with lupus can sometimes feel like there isn’t enough time in their days to focus on their health while also completing their studies. Perhaps the best way they can help themselves is by letting others help them. Today’s college campuses offer numerous resources for students, provided the student has alerted them to the condition. Some of the services available include:

  • Priority class selection
  • Specialized housing
  • Transportation services
  • Assistance with taking notes
  • Career planning guidance

Students should also work with disability services to let their professors know of their condition and arrange accommodations.

Lupus resource list

Crohn’s Disease at School

For the student with Crohn’s disease, the most worrisome part of the condition is not knowing when a flare up will occur. Although there are certain triggers that are more likely to set off an attack – including cigarettes, stress, or certain foods – it can also happen for no reason. With this in mind, the best thing a student can do is build a support network – including a gastroenterologist near their school – and be prepared for flares when they occur.

Crohn’s Facts The majority of Crohn’s disease cases are diagnosed in people between the ages of 15 and 30. With proper medical treatment, only 11 percent of individuals diagnosed with Crohn’s will have a chronically active condition.

Scholarships for students with Crohn’s

Lifestyle & eating with Crohn’s

Since Crohn’s disease affects the gastrointestinal tract, proper nutrition plays a big role in warding off attacks and staying well. Unfortunately, college students aren’t always known for prioritizing healthy food – especially when finals are kicking in and late night study sessions are required. Some of the food-related concerns a student with Crohn’s should be aware of include:

Combating effects of steroids

Especially after a flare, many Crohn’s patients are prescribed a steroid to ward of attacks; however, a side effect of this type of medication is overeating – especially carbs.

Food sensitivities

Because CD is an inflammatory disease, students need to be vigilant about recognizing foods that affect them adversely. Keeping a food journal is a great way to trace sensitivities.

Dining options

Especially for students with limited access to kitchens, the meal options on campus can sometimes be tricky. Consider meeting with the campus dietician or asking the health center to provide a list of suitable options at school.

Disordered eating

For someone with Crohn’s, every meal can be a source of stress as they don’t know when or why a flare up will occur. In addition to affecting mental health, this part of the disease can also lead to eating less food and developing a disordered view of eating. Finding ways to maintain a healthy relationship with food is critical to long-term health.

Crohn’s resource list

Mental Illness at School

Mental health is a huge topic for today’s college students, and for good reason: a survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness found that 64 percent of all respondents who dropped out of college did so for reasons related to mental health. Whether battling the effects of depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, or another type of mental illness, college is a time when these conditions can be exacerbated if they go untreated.

Mental health scholarships for students

Transition from high school to college with a mental illness

Transitioning to college is the first step to independent living for many students, but for those who struggle with mental illness it can also be stressful and anxiety-inducing. Students and their families can lessen the nerve-wracking aspects of this time in a number of ways, including:

  • Consider attending a college closer to home so you don’t have to deal with the stress of moving and living away from family.
  • Pick a smaller school that feels more communal and less overwhelming.
  • If social anxiety is an issue, ask your college about getting a single room rather than sharing with a roommate.
  • Meet with staff at both health services and the counseling office on arrival and learn about support systems available.
  • Ensure you’ve got a local doctor and/or therapist to visit if/when need be.
  • There may be someone on staff trained to treat your condition

  • May have the capacity to store your medical records and provide information on treatments you receive in case of emergency

  • May offer a list of after-hours contact

  • Provide information on the closest hospitals and clinics

  • Providing a single room in a dormitory

  • Ensuring you have access to a special diet

  • Access to a note-taker during lectures

  • Providing other academic accommodations, such as extra test time, quiet room

  • Assistance with transportation

  • Your hometown doctor can transfer medical files to your school/new doctors

  • Able to share the history of your condition and successful/unsuccessful treatment

  • You can still visit this doctor over holidays or school breaks

  • Check with school’s health center for list of recommendations

  • Ask other students with similar conditions, if possible

  • Search via your insurance carrier to find an in-network option

  • Most students can be on their parents’ insurance until age 26 if they are a dependent

  • Ask your insurer/parent to find out if you are still covered out-of-state

  • Find out what types of visits and procedures are covered

  • Ask about how prescriptions are handled

  • Consider purchasing a student insurance policy

  • Talk to the department of student life to find out about student clubs such as a diabetes group or lupus awareness club

  • Found out if any national organizations have college chapters on your campus

  • Consider starting your own group

  • Ask your local doctor about community support programs

  • Research national chapters to see if they operate in your area

  • Check with local community centers, churches, counseling groups, or medical centers to see if any groups are offered

  • Get enough sleep

  • Ensure you’re eating foods that don’t inflame or upset your condition

  • Avoid stress or pressure-filled situations

  • Don’t try to go it alone

  • Keep up with any immunizations or vaccinations

  • Learn about services in place to help you manage your condition and the stress associated with college, and use those services frequently

  • Find a form of exercise that doesn’t aggravate your condition

  • Consider talking to a counselor or therapist about how the condition makes you feel

  • Change your treatment routine

  • Throw off your schedule

  • Prioritize school over your health

  • Be embarrassed to ask for help or accommodations

Expert Advice for Students with Chronic Conditions

Samantha Markovitz is a health coach, diabetes educator, patient advocate and the founder of GraceMark Wellness & Lifestyle Coaching.

Q

How do chronic conditions affect students?

AChronic conditions can affect students in different ways, depending on the condition and the individual. Students living with these conditions deal with them 24/7 and have no choice about when the illness decides to demand attention or requires them to step away from class, so treating them with kindness and respect goes a long way.

Q

What should teachers be aware of when a student with a chronic condition is in their class?

AThey need to be aware of what the condition is, how it affects the student and their learning, what (if any) danger signs may signal a potential emergency, and how to prevent and/or react to that situation. Be aware that difficulty concentrating may not be an actual behavior problem, but may be a sign that something is wrong medically and needs to be addressed on the spot. Remember that these students want to be like their peers: safe, healthy, and ready to learn. Work with them to ensure that your class is a place where that can happen.

Cathie Richards is a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater who has Type 1 Diabetes. She graduated in May of 2016 with a bachelor of science in public relations and now works for a PR firm in Milwaukee.

Q

When were you first diagnosed and how did that diagnosis change your life?

AThe summer before my freshman year of high school. Aside from daily needle pokes and the stares I get from strangers who think I’m taking some form of illegal drugs, my life hasn’t changed all that much. I think I’m stronger and more understanding of other people’s life situations. Sometimes I get frustrated and ask, “Why me?”, but I know that I could be a lot worse off.

Q

What were the best resources you found for helping to balance college and your condition?

AI went to two different universities before I graduated. My first was about six hours away from the majority of my family, so the disabilities services department was my main resource. They gave me testing accommodations so I wouldn’t have to worry about taking extra time incase my blood sugar dropped, and they allowed for extra absences in case I couldn’t drive or walk because of high or low blood sugars.

Q

What should faculty and administrators know about students who are dealing with a chronic condition while also trying to focus on college?

ADon’t assume to know how your student is feeling by just looking at them. I’ve had plenty of people tell me that I look fine without understanding why I wasn’t in class. I might look fine the next day, but I assure you, when I wasn’t in class, there was a reason for my absence. Don’t expect a full explanation from your student, either. Just trust that they had a legitimate reason.

Q

What advice can you give to current or prospective students with a chronic condition?

AI made the choice to work with the team at disabilities services, but it may not the right choice for everyone. Don’t be shy to tell the people who can help you about your condition. If you don’t speak up about it, then nobody can help if you need it.