Add vaccinations to your back-to-college check list

​​Posters? Check. Pens? Check. Bathroom organizer? Check.


Don’t forget one of the most important tasks for your back-to-college list.

College students should head back to school vaccinated for meningitis, Tdap and HPV, advises Michael Deaton, medical director of CMU’s University Health Services.

And a flu shot should be on their calendar for October.

“I wish all students would come to us already vaccinated,” Deaton says. “Get it done at home before you come to campus, and the vaccine has a chance to settle in, and you’re covered.”​

Students who can’t fit the shots in with their hometown physician can get all of these shots at University Health Services in Foust Hall, Deaton says.

Why the urgency?

“A college campus is ripe for the spread of infectious diseases,” Deaton says. “Students live in close quarters. It’s stressful coming back to school, or, if you’re a freshman, just starting out. Their eating and sleeping patterns are off. Students from all over the country and the world are bringing in strains of bugs others haven’t seen.”

Deaton strongly suggests the following vaccinations for college students:

  • Meningitis. Meningococcal meningitis is a serious bacterial infection. It’s hard to recognize and can be deadly.

    Meningitis is difficult to spot because in its early stages the symptoms are similar to those of more common viral illnesses.

    But unlike more common illnesses, meningococcal disease can cause death or disability within just one day.

    Teens and young adults are at the highest risk.

    A contagious disease, meningitis can be spread by kissing, sharing utensils and drinking glasses, and living in close quarters.

    “The reason a meningitis vaccine is so important is because the mortality rate for meningitis is between 10 and 40 percent,” Deaton says, and it moves in quickly.

    “It’s only a matter of hours until serious illness ensues,” he says. “Then there’s a chance you could die, even if treated. Even people who survive have serious consequences, including hearing loss and amputation.

    “What parent wants their kids to go through that?”

  • Tdap. This stands for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, and one vaccine protects against all three.

    Tetanus, also called lockjaw, causes painful muscle tightening and stiffness, usually all over the body.

    It can lead to tightening of muscles in the head and neck so you can't open your mouth, swallow or sometimes even breathe. Tetanus kills about 1 out of 5 people who are infected.

    Diphtheria can cause a thick coating to form in the back of the throat. It can lead to breathing problems, paralysis, heart failure and death.

    Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, causes severe coughing spells, vomiting and disturbed sleep.

    All three of these diseases are caused by bacteria. Diphtheria and pertussis are spread from person to person through coughing or sneezing. Tetanus enters the body through cuts, scratches or wounds.

    Most children are immunized against whooping cough, Deaton says, but it starts to wear off by college age.

    “You don’t want to get whooping cough,” Deaton says. “It takes three months to get over it, even on antibiotics.

    “Imagine being halfway through your winter semester and coming down with this.”

  • HPV. Short for human papillomavirus, HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

    HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives. There are many different types of HPV. Some types can cause health problems including genital warts and cancers.

    In most cases, HPV goes away on its own and doesn’t cause any health problems. But when HPV doesn’t go away, it can cause cervical and other cancers.

    HPV vaccines can protect males and females against diseases (including cancers) caused by HPV when given in the recommended age groups.

    All boys and girls ages 11 or 12 years should get vaccinated. Catch-up vaccines are recommended for males through age 21 and for females through age 26, if they didn’t get vaccinated when they were younger.

    HPV vaccines are given in three shots over six months and it’s important to get all three doses.

    “Cervical cancer is a horrible way to die,” Deaton says. “Now there’s a vaccine to prevent it. Who would not want that for their daughter?”

  • Flu shot.

    The flu shot becomes available in October, Deaton says, so students can plan to get one on campus. Last year, Health Services made an extra effort to get the word out and brought vaccines to the students at the Bovee University Center and the Student Activity Center.

    “We had a 20 percent increase in vaccines, which is great,” Deaton says. “But we gave out 1,000 shots. Obviously, there are a whole lot of students who didn’t get one. We want to do even better this year.”

    One simple shot can prevent a lot of misery.

    “If you get the flu, you’re down for a couple weeks,” Deaton says. “That’s two weeks out of a 16-week semester that you’ll have to make up.”

    Vaccines aren’t the first thing on a college student’s mind, Deaton says.

    “They’re young, they think they’re invincible, they’re busy with classes, busy with friends, their noses are in their smart phones,” he says.

    A nudge from parents can help.

    “Nobody likes to get shots,” Deaton says. “Yeah, it hurts a little. But compared to the diseases, some pain in your arm for a couple hours is not a big deal.”