Whether it’s sleeping, studying or eating, college students are constantly in close contact with one another. While this proximity allows social interactions to grow, it simultaneously catalyzes the spread of viruses.
Carlos Acuña-Villaorduña, an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of Medicine at Boston University, said key causes of this trend are young people’s high amounts of social contact and activity.
According to Acuña-Villaorduña, the influenza virus colonizes in the respiratory tract through respiratory droplets, which can be produced by either coughing or sneezing. These droplets then congregate on surfaces open to a number of people, including tables, computers or the floor.
“[College students] are always mixed together, which is not a bad thing, but this allows them to get the virus more easily,” Acuña-Villaorduña said. “The other reason is that students are young healthy people. If elderly people get sick, they isolate themselves, but young people keep working and fueling the virus’ transmission.”
Joshua Barocas, who is also an infectious disease specialist and assistant professor of Medicine at Boston University, said the virus can be spread additionally through inhaling when an infected nearby person talks.
Even touching objects that a person with the flu comes in contact with, such as a doorknob, puts someone at risk for contamination, according to Barocas.
Aside from uncontrollable factors such as close proximity and lack of individual space, Barocas said college students can control how they react within the first 48 hours after exposure. These two days help determine the extent of viral contraction.
“The things to think about are the first 48 hours,” Barocas said. “As soon as symptoms come on, be them fevers, [gastrointestinal] upsets or infection, as soon as you start feeling these symptoms, the best thing to do is to create a six foot parameter you should maintain with people.”
It is not uncommon for students to ignore these symptoms and continue to remain within the vicinity of others, Barocas said. Potential motivation for such behavior may stem from group projects or penalties for absences from class or exams.
“I don’t think college students necessarily have bad habits,” he said. “Everyone is just within six feet of each other, whether it’s in the dorm, cafeteria or campus.”
For these reasons, both Acuña-Villaorduña and Baracos highlighted the importance of vaccinations.
“Though [a vaccine] is not 100 percent effective, it decreases the severity,” Barocas said. “Every year we hear people complain that they got the flu shot and still have the flu. They would be a lot more sick had they not gotten the shot.”
According to an October 2017 survey by the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, though 70 percent of US college students believe it is important to get a flu shot, only 46 percent actually do.
Acuña-Villaorduña said that another effective method for reducing the transfusion of viruses on college campuses is to hold individuals accountable for hygienic etiquette.
Cassie Berta, a sophomore in College of Arts and Sciences, said she has observed inconsiderate sanitary behavior from others on campus.
“Sometimes, I’ll see people eat, cough or sneeze on a napkin and then leave it wherever they are,” Berta said. “They don’t throw it away or pick it up.”
Acuña-Villaorduña said it is vital that students recognize how their actions, when they are sick, may affect others.
“Part of recognition is cough etiquette. If you need to cough, you need to avoid coughing over surfaces,” he said. “Handwashing is important. Remember that the flu can deposit on surfaces.”
Berta said she believed a greater emphasis on flu education would help students avoid it.
“I think there is general health consciousness, but kids don’t seem to be too concerned with it until they actually get sick,” Berta said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention encourages students and educators to wash their hands, cover coughs and get vaccinations to effectively slow the spread of viruses. However, Acuña-Villaorduña said the elimination of the flu all together proves to be more complex.
“The problem with the flu is that every year, it changes,” Acuña-Villaorduña said. “Normally, once we get the flu, our body produces antibodies. Every year, after the virus changes, your body can no longer protect you.”
According to Acuña-Villaorduña, viruses and bacteria are rapidly evolving species. Predictions are difficult to make and, thus, effective preventative methods cannot be prepared beforehand.
According to Barocas, health advocates and classes should constantly inform students of preventive information, even when they are healthy, rather than wait until students get sick.
“Once college students learn how to interact in the real world, I think there is potential for decreased infectivity with precautions,” he said.