Dr. Sparks Discusses Back-to-School Health Concerns

As students head back to college campuses, we want to remind our patients—both young women and their parents—of some health-related concerns that accompany the return to campus life. This is a good time to schedule an annual well-woman appointment. Our professional organization, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, recommends that all young women of this age group have a gynecologic visit. Whether or not this visit includes a pelvic exam (depending on individual concerns), the appointment provides a general wellness check-up, a review of medical history and immunizations, and an opportunity for teaching about important women’s health issues. We discuss the importance of avoiding unplanned pregnancy and, when appropriate, offer birth control options and information about sexually transmitted diseases. We want our younger patients to begin a lifelong commitment to preventive healthcare.

But my purpose here concerns another urgent preventive health issue for young adults, especially college students—that is college drinking. As the father of three young adults who have passed through the college years, I have delivered each of them to college dorms and, with my wife, worried about their safety away from our care.  We share these concerns with all parents.

Parents and students themselves have reason to worry. Research tells us that nearly 80% of college students drink alcohol, and almost half of those acknowledge a binge-drinking episode within the past two weeks. Among 18 to 24 year old students, nearly 20% meet the criteria for alcohol abuse and dependence. College students have higher rates of binge drinking and drunk driving than their non-college peers. Even those who abstain or drink legally and moderately often suffer secondhand effects of abusive drinking including interruptions to study or sleep, property damage, unwanted sexual advances, and physical violence or sexual assault. More than three quarters of young people living in student housing report enduring secondhand effects of alcohol abuse.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports 2009 statistics on the grave consequences of alcohol abuse among college students (ages 18 to 24):

  • 1825 annual Deaths of alcohol-related unintentional injuries
  • 696,000 assaults
  • 97,000 cases of sexual assault or acquaintance rape
  • More than 100,000 report having been too intoxicated to know whether they consented to having sex
  • 25% of students report academic problems related to their drinking

I would urge you to become well-informed about the problem. Know the symptoms of dangerous intoxication including:

  • Mental confusion, unconsciousness, or difficulty rousing the intoxicated person
  • Vomiting
  • Slow or irregular breathing
  • Low body temperature
  • Bluish or pale skin

Call 911 immediately if you observe these symptoms in someone who has been drinking and remain with that person until medical help arrives.

Whether you are a parent or student, be aware of your own alcohol habits. Expect your college or university to have a formal program for confronting the problem and become informed about its policies. Parents should realize that they continue to influences their students’ behaviors. Students who do not drink or do not drink abusively frequently cite discussions with parents as a factor influencing their alcohol-related choices. Be aware that the first six weeks of the freshman year are a particularly vulnerable time for students.

We wish our students a safe and rewarding academic year, and a college experience on which they can build their dreams for the future. We are available to discuss your health concerns including substance abuse issues. We can provide educational resources and referrals to care providers who have expertise in this area.

The data presented here comes from publications by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the U.S. Dept. of Education, which can be read in their entirety by clicking the links below: