For young women heading off to college, it can be a time filled with the excitement of living away from home. This new sense of independence should also include taking charge of one's own health, says Dr. Aparna Sridhar, an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
As a consulting gynecologist at the Arthur Ashe Student Health Center at UCLA, Sridhar is familiar with the medical concerns of young women, especially when it comes to menstruation, sex, and prevention of gynecological problems. She offers 10 tips for college students to ensure good health:
- Visit your doctor before you leave home Know your health details. Ask your parents and doctors about allergies, medical problems and other important health information. Make sure your screenings, immunizations and prescriptions are up to date. An especially important immunization is the one for human papilloma virus, or HPV, the most common sexually transmitted infection in young adults. "It can cause cervical cancer but can be prevented by the HPV vaccination and screening with pap smears," says Sridhar. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has information about screening and vaccination for cervical cancer and HPV.
- Know where to get healthcare on campus and what your insurance covers Before you arrive on campus, find out where the closest clinic or other healthcare facility is that accepts your health insurance. If taking the student health insurance, know what services are available to you. Check out your school's health center website to learn more.
- Keep track of your menstrual cycles Problems with menstrual cycles can disturb your school life. By tracking your periods, you can provide valuable information to your gynecologist if you do have issues. "When I ask my patients when their last period was, the first thing they do is open their cell phone. Many women are tracking their cycles through apps now," she says. Go online to research the variety of mobile apps that help you track your menstrual cycle. Sridhar also recommends tracking your moods, cramps and birth control intake.
- Protect yourself during sex If you are sexually active, protect yourself from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unplanned pregnancies. Condoms are the only way to prevent some STDs. Here is a link to fact sheets about STDs from the CDC. Ask your partner to get tested for STDs if there is a concern.
Talk to your doctor about which birth control is right for you. "There is so much incorrect information about birth control on the Internet that it is scary," she cautions. Your doctor can provide information about different methods. Or, you can visit websites such as www.bedsider.org, which provide medically accurate information. For birth control or condom accidents, emergency contraception available for use up to five days after unprotected sex.
- Follow good hygiene habits Sanitary pads, tampons or menstrual cups need to be changed frequently as recommended. Avoid scented soaps or shampoos in the vaginal area and substitute them with fragrance-free pH neutral soap. Dry the area by gentle patting and use toilet articles without dyes. Women are prone to yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis caused by an imbalance of the healthy bacteria in the vagina. Avoid feminine sprays, douches and powders. "Vaginal discharge is abnormal if you have itching, redness and pain. I recommend patients to see a doctor if they have discharge that is greenish-yellow, foamy or a bad smell," says Sridhar.
- Mind your bladder health When trekking across campus or sitting for long stretches while studying, you may be tempted to delay a trip to the women's restroom. However, going long periods without emptying your bladder can cause urinary tract infections (UTI). UTI's are very common in sexually active women. Be sure to empty your bladder every time you have sex to prevent UTIs. "Drink plenty of water to flush out your system and talk to your doctor if you have pain and frequent urination with burning," says Sridhar. "If neglected, these can lead to kidney infections."
- Own your sexuality Whether you are straight, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, intersex, transgender, queer or questioning, Aparna says know who you are and own it. Find friends and mentors who support you. If you are LGBTQ, check your school's website for campus resources like UCLA's LGBTQ Health program.
- Do not tolerate sexual abuse or violence One in four undergraduate women experience sexual assault on college campuses. Raise your voice and seek help on campus. Consult your dorm's Resident Assistant for advice or check your school's student website for guidance on reporting the assault and seeking medical and psychological services.
- Have a reproductive life plan While many collage aged women are not thinking about starting a family, Aparna does encourage her patients to think ahead about their reproductive life plan. When do you see yourself having children? How many kids do you want? "We plan ahead for our careers and where we want to live," she says. "Women should give equal thought to reproductive planning too." Take folic acid and calcium to keep your body healthy. And, when you are interested in having children, make a 'preconception visit' with your gynecologist.
- Keep a sound mind in a sound body Pay attention to your mental health. "The mind is very powerful and plays a big role in how you feel physically," she says. Find stress-busting activities that you enjoy and get enough sleep-;around 8 hours is optimal for most students. Yoga and meditation can help avoid stress and anxiety. Surround yourself with happy people and keep your family close