Keeping healthy

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The Independent Online

It's a sad fact that having a good time isn't always compatible with having good health, but if you're careful, you can have both

Most students coming to university or college already know what's bad for them - drink, junk food, unprotected sex and the like - but they go ahead and do it anyway, just as the people now doling out advice probably did before them.

So bearing in mind that at some stage you might get unfeasibly drunk, have a dodgy sexual encounter and fail to eat all the food groups in one day, you can still emerge from your course healthy and sane if you follow some of the well being tips given out in Freshers' week for most of the time.

REGISTER WITH YOUR GP

Perhaps one of the most important things is to register with a GP service in your university or college town - you can only be fully registered with one NHS doctor - ideally wherever you spend most of your time. "Some people say, 'I'm never ill' which just isn't the case," says Dr Philip Denis Le Seve, a GP at Sussex University and contributor to the website studenthealth.co.uk. Many universities and colleges have dedicated student health centres and strive to make it easy for students to register - some such as the University of Sussex allow online registration.

If you haven't registered and you suddenly do fall ill later during term, you'll be battling administration as well as ill health, advises Dr Hugh Porter, a GP at Nottingham University. "And if you fall behind in your studies because of health problems you'll need official confirmation from your doctor," he adds. New patients are given a medical - checking blood pressure, vaccinations and your general health. You'll receive details about your local GP from your university or college with the rest of your freshers' material.

While doctors report students are generally motivated to seek help when things do go wrong, they seem to be happier speaking to the practice nurses who tend to be more available. "Often, nurses are better at the counselling side of talking to patients," says Dr Le Seve.

HEALTH ADVICE ON LINE

And if students don't want to raise embarrassing issues with their GP, there's ample opportunity to seek advice online - where you can investigate anything from smelly feet to rower's wrist. The comprehensive website studenthealth.co.uk reports that most popular sections are sexual health, followed by men's health, while the most requested advice leaflets deal with anogenital skin, contraception, glandular fever and penis size.

"We don't get many people in the surgery asking about that one," says Dr Le Seve.

SEX

Five years after fears and publicity about HIV seemed to peak, students are taking more sexual risks again, GPs report - and suffering the consequences of unprotected sex - surprise pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea, syphilis and chlamydia - the most commonly sexually transmitted infection. Chlamydia has increased 17 per cent among 16 - 19 year olds from 1997 to 1998 and more than half of sufferers have no symptoms. However, it can easily be treated with antibiotics - but even more easily avoided through use of condoms. "We do about 10 per cent of all Nottingham GPs' screening for chlamydia," says Dr Porter, "a huge amount".

ALCOHOL, DRUGS, SMOKING

A student cliché it may be, but alcohol still tops the list as drug of choice. Universities such as Nottingham are now making real efforts to quell the urge among first years to drink daft amounts. Recommended limits are 28 units a week for men, 21 for women. "It's a multi-faceted problem, affecting academic performance, debt, injuries, sexual accidents, unprotected sex," says Dr Porter. "But it's a terribly difficult culture to break down." Moderation is the message - bear in mind the drinking behaviour of your college years may determine your drinking patterns for the rest of your life.

For every one pint of alcohol you drink, your body loses one and a quarter pints of water, and women's bodies contain less water than men's - so they effectively get drunker quicker. If you drink a couple of pints a night for 33 weeks of the year, you'll spend about £500 at subsidised bars. Very few students do end up as genuine alcoholics, but can do themselves a lot of damage long before they are deemed to have a drinking problem.

Drugs problems tend to be rarer, depending upon the institution and accessibility. Most commonly available tend to be cannabis, acid and ecstasy. "An awful lot of students are doing these drugs, and a few end up with big problems - they can trigger acute psychoses - tip those with latent schizophrenia over the edge," says Dr Le Seve. "They come to us with paranoid delusions, hearing voices - but we tend not to see users beforehand to be able to give any advice."

Perhaps more serious is smoking - statistically many students embark upon the habit of a lifetime at university or college. "Smoking hasn't dropped among young people as it has among the rest of the population - and numbers of young women smokers are growing," says Dr Le Seve. "The single biggest thing we can do in terms of long-term health for young people is to stop them smoking." Stop-smoking clinics tend to be well attended at university and college health centres - at least two thirds of adult smokers want to stop. GPs will warn of the evils of tobacco - from related diseases - bronchitis to the life-threatening cancer - down to the cost; £500 a year if you smoke 10 a day.

HEALTHY EATING AND EXERCISE

While most students know what they should eat, few do, says Dr Porter. "Lack of knowledge isn't an issue," he says. "But good, fresh food does cost more money and students tend to resort to pizza and junk food." Subsidised canteens are your best bet for affordable, healthy eating to boost your immune system against germs that thrive in campus chaos.

An area where most students do well is exercise - having more time and opportunity for sports than at any other time in their lives. In fact, many of the problems GPs encounter in student surgeries are sporting injuries.

"Don't forget, exercise is a great release of stress," says Dr Porter.

FRESHERS' AILMENTS

Mundane as it sounds, "fresher flu" (really only a bad cold) will probably be your greatest health risk - as unfamiliar bugs are exchanged, and you can't do much about it. Alas, if you're going to go down with glandular fever - now tends to be when it happens - severe cases can put you out of action for weeks, but if you get a mild dose, you'll probably be back on your feet after a couple of weeks. Likewise, meningitis tends to peak at around the student age group, so get vaccinated.

Asthma and allergies are also common - arising either because of a change of atmos-phere to a more polluted city or a green campus.

While there has been no reported outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) at any university or college, authorities are vigilant - an outbreak of the potentially fatal condition could close down an institution with quarantine restrictions. Most institutions advertise advice on their websites - most importantly, phone rather than visit the health centre if you believe yourself at risk.

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