The Freshman Plague: A Greater Issue than the Freshman Fifteen

Elizabeth LaCroix, Assistant News Editor

I remember one of my biggest concerns the summer before I left for college was whether or not I was going to be able to maintain my health. I had always been really good about eating healthy and getting enough sleep in high school, but I was worried that a new environment would cause me to change my habits. My friends and I feared the “freshman fifteen,” but little did we know we should have been fearing something a lot worse—the “freshman plague.” 

Ask any upperclassman and they will tell you their own version of the “freshman plague”: a term used to describe the high numbers of freshmen that get sick each year. In the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic hit, our biggest worry was the outbreak of the flu virus on campus. A global pandemic calls for even greater awareness of our health and wellbeing while in college. Even without the threat of COVID-19, college campuses are a petri dish for other viruses and bacteria. 

This was the biggest issue for me in my first semester of college. I was so busy adjusting to the new environment while balancing academics, athletics, and a social life that I ignored the signs of declining health. I remember waking up the morning of a big workout with chills, exhaustion, and a sore throat, but still choosing to complete the workout. I didn’t become a better athlete that day, but I did drag myself into a month of extreme fatigue and a cough that could be heard across campus. I developed an unhealthy mindset and forced myself to keep going, when I should have been taking time for myself. 

Kathy Morin, the Office Manager and a RN at Bates Health Services, explains that it is the freedom to make choices for themselves that causes poor immunity among the freshmen class each year. “No one is on campus telling them when and what to eat, when to study and when to go to bed! While this is all a part of growing into an adult, some have a harder time with the transition than others,” she said.

A strong immune system results from proper nutrition, good sleeping habits, exercise, and stress management. However, these healthy habits tend to be put on the backburner for incoming freshmen with the pressure of adjusting to life at Bates. If I had prioritized finding new healthy options in Commons and monitoring my sleep schedule and stress, I could have prevented myself from getting sick in the first place. 

If there is one specific factor that influences the poor immunity among the freshmen each year, it is stress. “This is nothing surprising as there have been numerous studies showing the direct effects of stress on the human body,” Morin says. “Everyone has stress but not everyone handles it the same way and some people use unhealthy coping strategies to de-stress that alters the immune system even more!”

A study published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that chronic stressors occurring both early and late in life can cause immune dysregulation, or the breakdown of the immune system. Immune cells have receptors for chemical messengers, such as neurotransmitters and hormones, that prepare the body for an immune response. However, this research showed that under stress these immune cells change how they respond to the chemical messages. The mind and body are more connected than one might think, which is why we have to maintain our stress levels throughout the semester. 

Checking in with yourself and how you are feeling is such an important part of maintaining your health. During my first semester, when I wasn’t in class or at practice, I used every moment to study. Not only was this unnecessary, but I was also constantly forgetting to monitor my mental health and take time to rest and recharge. I believe this is largely the reason why I struggled with immunity. Check out Ellie Boyle’s article “When You Need a Break, CAPS is There” for more information on the mental health resources that Bates has to offer. 

This year, it is especially necessary to prioritize your health and wellbeing. Keeping a strong immune system is part of preventing the spread of COVID-19, just like wearing a mask and washing your hands. 

“We can’t stress enough that wearing masks does not help if people aren’t washing their hands too! We know there will be times when we take our mask off, touch our face, put the mask on, and touch a doorknob or desk without any handwashing in between,” Morin says. 

Enjoy all of the things this year’s freshman experience has to offer, but do your part in keeping our campus safe. Wear a mask, wash your hands, maintain social distancing, get tested, and don’t forget to take care of all aspects of your mental and physical health.