How to Save Your Kids From College Health Hazards

A few years ago, an 18-year-old college freshman telephoned my radio show inquiring about the meningitis vaccine. He had heard that a former high school mate had died from complications of meningitis at college. He wondered whether the vaccine was right for him.

It was an intelligent question to ask. Just last year, a college freshman died at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, from meningococcal meningitis.

Knowledge can mean survival when it comes to our children knowing their medical histories and seeing that their tests and shots are up-to-date.

As so many young kids are now getting ready for college, I thought this would be a good time to remind parents and kids alike how important it is that you pack your medical knowledge along with your computer, new bedding and wardrobe. I have not forgotten that young caller to my show. He reminds me that teenagers today are taking health matters into their own hands -- as they should.

So as you are about to send your son or daughter away from home and your watchful eye this fall (perhaps for the first time), there are some important questions that you need to answer:

Are they up to date on all their medical needs and appointments?

Do they need any last-minute immunizations or shots?

Do they have their medical histories with them? Do they know and understand their own medical histories?

Do they know the importance of taking a health buddy as another set of "eyes and ears" with them to student health or the emergency room if they get sick?

Whether your child is leaving home for school, for a new job or to get married, their medical information must go with them. You can no longer watch over their health as you have done since they were babies.

When your child gets sick, he or she will be seeing a new doctor, often in a student health setting, without your advice and support. Eighty percent of what a doctor relies on to make an accurate diagnosis comes from your child's medical history. Research has shown that even kids with serious childhood illnesses can't recall the specifics of their past medical histories -- and not knowing can be hazardous to their health and jeopardize their care.

Here are some tips that will help you prepare your children for leaving home and teach them take charge of their own health. No one else can do that for them.

Make sure their immunizations are up to date. Most kids by now have received the basic set of immunizations. Check with your child's doctor about tetanus (it must be given every 10 years) and pertussis (whooping cough is on the rise, and teenagers now need a booster) along with the meningitis and the hepatitis B series. College freshmen are at increased risk for meningitis because of the close living quarters. I gave the vaccine to all three of my sons as they went off to college. And it saves you the worry later if there is a meningitis scare. Young women should ask about the HPV vaccine, which the CDC recommends for all women up to the age of 26. While you are at it, get a copy of all immunizations for your child's own health record. Download a form to help you keep track.

Schedule medical appointments -- eye exams, skin exams if they are on acne medications, and any doctor visits they may need if they have asthma, diabetes or other chronic health problem. A general last checkup with the family doctor is a good idea as well. Girls should have an appointment with a gynecologist or family doctor to discuss everything from their periods to birth control and to get advice about the HPV vaccine.

Ask your family doctor for a copy of vital health information, including immunization records, test results, doctor consultations from specialists and hospital discharge summaries.

Organize and store all your child's medical information in a binder or folder. Discuss with your child their complete medical history and review their medical records and any medications with them. Send them off with all their health information and health needs in tow.

I also recommend that everyone should carry a wallet card summarizing this information. (You can download a health-at-a-glance form to jot down all this information at and click on "To learn more about partnering with your doctor".)

Teach your child to take charge of his or her own health: to ask questions, have confidence in their own instincts, to continue to collect their medical test results and reports and take them to each doctor visit, and to be knowledgeable about their medical conditions and needs. My sons knew to call 911 when their brother was injured and to ask the ER for a copy of the medical report. When my sister's son was hospitalized while at college, he knew to get a copy of the discharge summary, so vital to his family doctor at home.

Encourage your child to take a health buddy, another set of "eyes and ears" to the emergency room or student health if they get sick. Their health buddy can then call you to keep you in the loop. All to often a sick student's parents are in the dark, not knowing what is going on and the sick student may simply not want to worry their parents.

Be sure to pass this information on to your child. Giving him or her all the information they need and inspiring them to take charge of their own health is a lifelong and potentially lifesaving gift.

As always, I welcome your comments, questions and suggestions.

Dr. Marie Savard is an ABC News medical contributor. Savard's book, How to Save Your Own Life, and her entire system is available on her Web site at