The Facebook.com group entitled “College 10 Commandments” lists its second rule as “Thou Shalt Get Sick All the Time.” But as if the snow, ice and bitter temperatures weren’t enough, this winter’s wind is whipping around a new type of problem for students atop the hill.
With a recent surge in the number of cases of a particularly unpleasant strain of gastroenteritis, commonly known as stomach flu, students at Tufts are finding they cannot escape the inevitability of becoming either bed-ridden or glued to the toilet at least once – if not several times – during the course of the semester.
According to a Jan. 17 article in The Boston Globe, “Intestinal germ leaves trail of misery,” over 3,700 patients flooded Boston area emergency rooms during the months of December and January, raising concerns from federal health authorities who were unable to pinpoint the source or cause of the stomach flu.
Though cases of the flu surge every winter when the weather gets cold and immune systems falter, the stomach flu has hit harder than usual this year, especially in close-quartered communities like college campuses.
Medical Director of Health Services Dr. Margaret Higham said that many varieties of stomach viruses are common among college students, especially underclassmen who still live together in dorms. This year, Higham said, Tufts students have fit the pattern of the greater Boston community.
“We see stomach flu all the time,” she said. “It usually gets worse at times during the winter and summer, but there has certainly been an increase since December.”
According to Higham contagious illnesses like the stomach flu can easily spread from the city of Boston to the Tufts campus, even though many students spend the majority of their time on the Hill.
“These things don’t happen in isolation,” she said.
Health Services sent a mass e-mail earlier this month detailing the symptoms of the virus, which is called norovirus according to the Boston Globe article. “Other college campuses have had big outbreaks this winter,” the e-mail said. “We’d like to avoid that here!”
Though the e-mail gave a series of tips to help avoid contracting the virus, including hand washing and sanitizer gels, the illness has nonetheless spread through several dorms on campus. With symptoms including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headaches and body aches, students at Tufts suffering from norovirus have been miserable.
“I took a nap at 2 [p.m.], woke up at 4 [p.m.], and then vomited all over my room,” freshman Adam Gaynor said, adding that he quickly called Tufts Emergency Medical Services to transfer him to the hospital. “I just felt generally lousy.”
Upon his arrival at the hospital, Gaynor said he was given an IV and medicine. Like many students suffering from the stomach flu, he fell asleep for an extended period of time until the short-lived but painful illness had mostly passed.
Freshman Elizabeth Herman began feeling the effects of the virus late Monday evening and said she’d essentially been debilitated for two days, leaving her unable to attend her classes.
“It was short, but awful while it lasted,” said Herman.
Herman said she thinks she caught the virus from her roommate. According to her, it is incredibly contagious.
“It’s almost inevitable that if someone like your roommate has [the virus], you’re going to get it,” Herman said, emphasizing the ease with which sicknesses can be spread on college campuses. “You’re definitely much more prone to getting sick in college.”
While Gaynor was unsure as to how he contracted the illness, Higham dispelled the myth that it could be spread simply through the sharing of drinks or breathing in the vicinity of an affected person.
“It’s not spread by breathing,” she said. “It comes from stool, which can be on toilets, sinks, doorknobs … and eventually on hands.” Higham also warned about the dangers of practicing loose bathroom hygiene and engaging in sexual contact with those suffering from the strain.
“Never touch the handle of the toilet with your hands,” she said.
Gaynor emphasized the stomach flu’s ability to affect even those with strong immune systems. “I almost never get sick,” he said. “And I don’t know how this thing was transmitted.”
Sophomore Chris Chammas, who recently recovered from his case of the stomach flu, noted that this year was particularly bad in terms of illnesses among his close friends.
“I didn’t hear about any stomach flu last year,” he said. “One of my friends got it a couple days after me.”
While the stomach virus is a much less common than the respiratory infection, Higham
said, students are finding the former a much more uncomfortable predicament. “Most people would much rather have a fever,” she said.
“I think the stomach thing is worse [than a cold],” said Chammas, who slept off the disease until he could return to his daily routine. “A lot worse.”