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Debunking the "frat flu": Why do students get sick when they return to campus?

September 19, 2023
<p>SOLO Cups set up for a game at the Tin Can in East Lansing. Taken on January 17, 2023.</p>

SOLO Cups set up for a game at the Tin Can in East Lansing. Taken on January 17, 2023.

For many students, the first weeks back on campus are marked by runny noses and coughs, symptoms of a seemingly random sicknesses that affect nearly everyone. Students have coined the term ‘frat flu’ to describe these symptoms that often show up after they enter the college party scene.

While students have a social understanding of the frat flu phenomenon, it doesn’t have a medical definition. So, what are students actually falling sick with?

According to University Physician Michael Brown, the answer is quite simple: the common cold.

“The most common are just your typical colds, which are hundreds of different viruses that cause those symptoms that probably everyone's experienced as a child and teenager before they maybe arrived on campus,” Brown said. “So nothing new to most of them. That's the vast majority.”

Students tend to experience these symptoms during their return back to school because of the increased exposure to people on a college campus, Brown said. Between large class sizes, dormitory living and crowded social events, students are far more likely to interact with someone who has a virus.

Microbiology and molecular genetics professor Shannon Manning said this level of exposure to people is combined with typical college-behavior that negatively affects students’ immune systems.

“[The] transition back to school is difficult on your body and your immune system suffers a little bit when you're up all night, not getting enough sleep, partying,” Manning said. “All of those late nights combined with alcoholic beverages, et cetera, that will take a toll on your immune system.”

Additionally, Manning said, because illnesses have an incubation period where the person is infectious but not symptomatic, there are often party-goers transmitting viruses they aren’t even aware they have.

“When you go to these parties, you're surrounded by a lot of people, and a lot of people might not necessarily be symptomatic when they attend, but they might be infectious,” Manning said. “So then, that is more readily transmissible to partygoers.”

The serious illnesses that students should be more worried about are influenza and COVID-19, Brown said. As COVID numbers rise across the country, Brown said we can expect to see a similar trend in Ingham County.

Although COVID numbers can be harder to track now that a majority of testing is done at-home, hospitalizations due to COVID have doubled locally in recent weeks, Brown said. This suggests a relative peak in the virus, though it is much smaller than previously seen in the pandemic.

Ingham County also participates in wastewater surveillance, which can be used to analyze COVID rates in the community. 

“Those numbers are going up and that's consistent with what we'd expect with the current rise in COVID cases,” Brown said. “You'd expect to see more of the virus circulating in the sewer system.”

Brown said that he recommends students get the flu vaccine and the COVID vaccine to protect themselves and others. He also encouraged students to wear a mask when they are feeling any kind of symptoms in order to protect the people around them.

“If they do get sick, feel sick, runny nose, cough, I really would encourage them to voluntarily put a mask on and and just think about those that they're protecting around,” Brown said. “Even if it's a run of the mill cold you know you can protect others by wearing a mask now.”

On top of things like vaccines and masks, Manning said an important part of not getting sick is maintaining your health in general and allowing your immune system to stay strong.

“Staying hydrated, eating healthy, getting enough rest, trying to keep stress at a minimum,” Manning said. “Being cautious, a little more cautious when you recognize that more severe viruses, it's not just the common cold, are increasing in frequency, like the Coronavirus.”

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