They arrive like clockwork every September: first year university students. I can spot them in the waiting room, looking a little lost and a little too young to be there on their own.
Starting university is a seismic shift for teens. It’s not just about new timetables and lectures – it’s about learning that if the loo roll runs out, there’s no more until they go to the shop and buy it.
It’s also about learning to look after their own physical and mental health.
As a GP and a mother-of-three myself (aged eight, 11 and 15, so not quite ready for university yet) the last thing I would tell another parent is to try not to worry, because of course we do. I also wouldn’t advise anyone to be blasé, because while we might be trying to be hands off, a little judicious advice and assistance goes a long way.
So what do teenagers need to know?
Starting university is a seismic shift for teens. It’s not just about new timetables and lectures – it’s about learning that if the loo roll runs out, there’s no more until they go to the shop and buy it
The basics – get all the vital vaccines and find a new GP
My first bit of advice is: make sure they are up to date with ALL their vaccinations. One in eight teens start uni without having had the MenACWY jab, which protects against four types of meningitis. It’s offered routinely to 14-year-olds (in Year 9) but if you think your teen might have missed it, see your GP.
Getting through a dose of fresher’s flu
When students arrive for their first year, there’s often a wave of bugs that go around – known collectively as freshers’ flu.
For many teens it’s the first time they’ve had to manage an illness on their own, so it can feel daunting. But the advice is the same for any common respiratory viral illness: drink fluids, rest up and use paracetamol if needed.
Symptoms might include a cough, sore throat, runny nose and a fever. Usually there’s no need to worry and it will resolve itself after few days. If symptoms worsen or include severe headaches or vomiting, cold hands and feet, neck stiffness, sensitivity to light or a rash that doesn’t disappear when pressed under a glass (knows as a non-blanching rash) seek urgent medical help. Always err on the side of caution.
Also check if they’re up-to-date with all of their boosters – the three-in-one for diphtheria, tetanus and polio, and the MMR, which vaccinates against measles (the UK is experiencing an outbreak at the moment), mumps and rubella.
The HPV jab, which protects against the cancer-causing HPV virus, should also be given in Year 9, but some kids miss it. Again, speak to your GP about this. If your teen has already left, they can ask their new doctor about all these vaccinations.
This leads to my next bit of advice: get them to register with a local GP as soon as possible.
This is essential, as it’s key to accessing ongoing care from both hospital consultants and mental health teams. By now you’ll know where they’ll be living, so this can all be done online.
You can find a local GP practice by tapping ‘find a local GP’ into Google. The top hit should be the NHS website GP finder page, which allows you to search by post code for practices. Most have a website which allows you to register, but it can also be done in person.
Your teen may need to visit the practice anyway, for an initial assessment, before they can start having appointments and receiving prescriptions.
The NHS app is also useful to be able to view your health record, look up blood test results and order repeat prescriptions if required.
I also recommend getting them registered with a local dentist and making sure to buy them a home first aid kit.
How to keep on top of long-term conditions
Many teenagers are receiving specialist care from a hospital team – it could be anything from asthma or diabetes care to inflammatory bowel diseases such as Crohn’s or mental health treatment.
The best thing to do, once registered with the new GP, is to make sure to bring this up during the initial assessment. The doctor should then be able to make a referral to a local team.
Getting to know a new set of doctors can be daunting. There may be a temptation to stick with the team back at home but easy access to check-ups, advice and support is very important.
If your teen does run out of prescribed medication, depending on what it is a local pharmacy may be able to give them an emergency supply until a new prescription can be obtained.
Tricky conversations that need to be had
It is a fact of life than teens will, given the chance, experiment with drink, sex and even drugs.
While I wouldn’t encourage a laissez-faire approach, being hard-line will probably backfire. Make sure they know they can come to you or call – at whatever hour, if needed – if something goes wrong.
And if you do get a distress call wait until the dust has settled before suggesting drinking that much (or whatever it was) isn’t the best idea.
Open communication is key. Try to make chats about things like contraception, consent, sexual health testing, drinking and drug taking a part of everyday life. Use news events or TV shows as a springboard for conversations.
Often, parents come with their teen to appointments for contraception (almost always mums and daughters). I recommend they make sure they have a stock of whatever they use.
They should know where the local sexual health clinic is and, if sexually active, get tested every three months or when there is a new partner. Some clinics give out free condoms. Emergency contraception is available on prescription from your GP or sexual health clinic, and for free from many pharmacies.
Generally, try to work out how much help might still be needed. Some kids can be left to their own devices, while others will need to be texted daily to remind them to take their tablets.
Eventually they’ll learn how to do it all for themselves. And while I don’t think you ever truly stop worrying about your children, perhaps you’ll be able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Nights out that led to intensive care
Sophia Spiers, 19, contracted deadly meningitis in March – seven months into her first year at Manchester University – which led to a fortnight in intensive care.
‘I’d celebrated my 19th birthday and had been going out a lot,’ says Sophia, from Hertfordshire. ‘Perhaps that’s how I caught it.’
The ordeal began when she woke up with an extreme aching feeling all over.
‘I started being violently sick,’ she says. ‘I thought it was just a stomach bug, but then I stopped being able to see or hear properly.’
Sophia Spiers, 19, contracted deadly meningitis in March – seven months into her first year at Manchester University – which led to a fortnight in intensive care
The following day Sophia felt even worse and called her parents, who then called NHS 111. They recommended she go straight to A&E.
She was diagnosed with meningitis, a disease which is spread through close contact so is one of the major health risks for young adults in their first year at university.
Although Sophia had been vaccinated for most strains, she’d not had the meningitis B vaccine, as this was introduced for children in 2015. It’s currently only available to teens or adults privately, costing up to £300.
‘The infection damaged my hip joint and I also lost my hearing in one ear,’ says Sophia. ‘It could have been a lot worse. Other types of meningitis are more common, so if you haven’t had the vaccine for them, called the MenACWY vaccine, get it before uni.’
For more information on meningitis, visit meningitisnow.org.