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):
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)
Bipolar Mood Disorder
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic Leukemia & other cancers
Hepatitis (chronic viral B & C)
Hyperthyroidism or Hypothyroidism
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Sickle Cell Anemia
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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:
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
- How can your school’s health center provide help?
- How can the office of disabilities services help you?
- What if your doctors are home but you’re away at school?
- How can you find a doctor in your area?
- What should you do about insurance?
- Where can you find support at school?
- How can you find support in the local community?
- How can you stay healthy as a busy college student?
- How can you manage the stress commonly associated with college?
- What are things you shouldn’t do when attending college with a chronic condition?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.