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September 06, 2020 3 min read

If you’re currently preparing to embark on university study for the first time or to return after the summer break, you’re likely to be feeling enough trepidation and strain without your health being an additional cause for concern.

The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has put an even more perilous complexion on the matter of how to avoid falling ill due to a virus, cold or flu while at university.

Indeed, even before COVID-19 had ever been heard of, there was the cultural phenomenon known as the “freshers’ flu”. This is not necessarily a literal flu, but is instead a term applied to any of a range of illness symptoms that students may be particularly likely to experience during freshers’ week.

So common are such complaints as fever, sore throat, coughing and headache among many students during their first few weeks at university, that “freshers’ flu” has come to be regarded as almost a rite of passage.

But is that really a very helpful attitude to have, especially during the coronavirus era? Furthermore, are there proven ways to minimise your chances of becoming the latest victim of this malady shortly after your arrival at uni?

Can you avoid “freshers’ flu” while still enjoying yourself at uni?

We can completely understand many students’ instinctive answer to this question being “no”. After all, as far as many new uni arrivals are concerned, freshers’ week is all about meeting and mingling with all manner of potential new friends, who just happen to have come together from various parts of the UK and the world.

Inevitably, some of these people will be carrying viruses that you aren’t immune to. What’s more, even such measures as face covering rules and social distancing markers that your university might put in place this autumn are unlikely to eliminate all likelihood of you contracting “freshers’ flu”.

There are, however, other things you can do to lessen your risk. Some of those steps you might take – such as reducing your alcohol intake and ensuring you get as much sleep as you can – aren’t exactly stereotypically ‘studenty’, but are likely to helpful for protecting you, nonetheless.

It’s also probably a very good idea during those first few weeks at university to say no to junk food and takeaways, and to instead follow the advice of our nutritionist Karen Newby, who has argued that it is indeed possible to eat your way to better immune health.

One more thing... take it easy!

Finally, there’s one other very important thing to avoid – or at least, minimise – if you want to avoid joining the ranks of “freshers’ flu” sufferers. That thing is excessive stress.

Yes, we know what you’re going to say; freshers’ week and the weeks and months immediately following it, as you get accustomed to the new and (initially!) scary environment that university life represents, is likely to be full of stress for you.

But whether you’re worried about making friends, affording food and nights out on your student loan, or feeling homesick, the stress hormone corticosteroid can suppress your immune system’s effectiveness, including by lowering the number of lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that are integral to your body’s immune response.

That, in turn, could leave you more prone to infections. And whether the next infectious disease you might suffer from is the common cold, flu or COVID-19, you’ll appreciate strengthening your chances of avoiding all of them during what is likely to be a very busy academic year ahead.