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13 essential supplies to pack in a college first aid kit

You’re getting ready to send your kids off to college and want to ensure they have everything they need in case of a minor illness or accident. Although most college campuses have health centers, healthcare providers say it’s also a good idea to send your student off with a college first aid kit to keep in their dorm room filled with basic health supplies and over-the-counter medications.

In the wake of COVID-19, college health centers will likely be busier than usual—if students are even allowed to return to campus in the fall. Having these 13 items on hand can help college students care for common cuts, scrapes, aches and pains, and cold symptoms on their own.

13 supplies to include in a college first aid kit

Physicians recommend including the following supplies in your college student’s first aid kit.

1. Thermometer

Including a thermometer in your student’s first aid kit is a must since students should not be attending class if they have a fever, especially during COVID-19, according to Susan Besser, MD, family medicine specialist with Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore. Oral thermometers work well but it’s important to clean with soap and water after each use if it’s going to be shared among roommates.

Students with a fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher or a fever accompanied by a headache or stiff neck, should seek immediate medical help, as these could be signs of meningitis

“For fevers of 100.4 or greater, students should take Tylenol or Motrin to reduce their fever and help with pain,” says Ashanti Woods, MD, pediatrician with Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. “Students should be fever-free for 24 hours [without the aid of medication] before returning to class.” If students are showing symptoms of coronavirus in addition to a fever, they may need to stay home longer than that. 

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Over-the-counter medications

These basics can help your child avoid a trip to the pharmacy for every upset stomach, ache, and pain.

2. Pain relief and fever reducer

Advil (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen)  are both essential items for college first aid kits, says Dr. Besser. Advil can be used for fever, dental pain, and headaches. Tylenol can reduce fever and treat mild to moderate headaches, muscle pain, colds and toothaches.

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RELATED: Is it safe to take ibuprofen and Tylenol together?

3. Nausea 

Pepto-Bismol is good for students to have on hand since it provides relief from nausea, diarrhea, and upset stomach—common after late night pizza or a trip to the college cafeteria. Dr. Besser says it can also help with symptoms such as heartburn, indigestion, gas, belching, and fullness. 

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RELATED: Is it safe to mix alcohol with heartburn medication?

4. Allergy medication

Going away to college means adapting to a new environment and for students with allergies this can mean exposure to new allergy triggers. “Allergy medications such as Claritin and the like are a good addition to a first aid kit,” Dr Besser says. “If your child is prone to allergies, consider an allergy eye drop or nasal spray as well.” Benadryl is a more potent allergy medication that may be helpful when symptoms are more severe. However, it does cause drowsiness, which may be problematic for a student trying to study. If your child has allergies that can cause anaphylaxis, add a supply of epinephrine to the kit.

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5. Cough suppressants

If students are recovering from a cold and have a nagging cough that’s keeping them awake (or disrupting their roommate), a nighttime cough syrup can help. To keep coughs at bay during an exam, cough drops can help soothe a tickle in their throat.

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6. Insect relief

Depending on where your child is going to college, bug bites may be of concern. Certain cities have a higher prevalence of mosquitos. Students can benefit from packing a mosquito repellant, a supply of hydrocortisone cream, and an oral antihistamine (such as Benadryl) to combat itching, says Dr. Woods. 

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7. Canker sore treatment

These painful mouth sores are common among college students and some evidence suggests that when students become stressed during exams, and their nutritional levels are affected, they become more susceptible to developing canker sores

Benzocaine 2%, aka Orajel, is a good treatment for canker sores,” says Dr. Woods. “Orajel can reduce the pain associated with canker sores and help the sore to heal quicker.” 

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In addition to making sure your student is prepared in the event of a minor illness or injury, it’s important to emphasize wellness and preventive care to avoid getting sick in the first place.

8. Multivitamins

Taking a daily multivitamin can help if your college student is eating on the run and getting inadequate nutrition. “Multivitamins are great if your college student isn’t eating a well-balanced diet (that includes protein, carbs, fat, vitamins, and minerals),” Dr. Woods says. “If they do eat a healthy diet, composed of all food groups, vitamins aren’t necessary.”

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9. Fiber supplements

Although college-aged men should consume 38 grams of fiber each day and young women should strive for 25 grams of fiber each day, a 2018 study found most college students don’t consume even half as much fiber as they need. Study participants consumed an average of 10.9 grams daily, putting them at a higher risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure in the future. 

If your child isn’t getting enough fiber from sources such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables and beans, consider packing a fiber supplement, which can also prevent constipation. These supplements come in pill, powder, capsule, liquid and gummy forms. Adequate hydration is important when taking fiber supplements, and any time really. So remind your student to drink plenty of water.

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10. Natural sleep aids

Today’s college students are often feeling stressed juggling a full course load with part-time jobs and a social life—especially amid a global pandemic. As a result, they often get less sleep, which can affect their grades and overall health. Using smartphones and other electronic devices at bedtime can also affect sleep patterns.

One study found that insomnia cases among college students is a growing concern. While OTC sleeping pills are only recommended for occasional use, there are several natural solutions that can help to combat stress and insomnia. “Melatonin is a good sleep aid, but it may not help much if the problem is stress,” Dr. Besser says. “Chamomile tea can also help with sleep and the tea may help with some of the stress.”

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RELATED: Finding the right melatonin dosage

Health supplies

And don’t forget crucial first aid supplies that don’t come in pill form.

11. Heat treatments

Dr. Besser notes that heating pads can help with both menstrual and muscle cramps. Companies such as Thermacare make disposable, adhesive heat wraps that can be worn under clothing to help with menstrual cramps as well as neck, shoulder, and other joint pain—a perfect option for your student to use without missing class.

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12. Bandages and ice packs

Dr. Woods recommends packing an assortment of adhesive bandages in different sizes as well as elastic bandages (commonly known as Ace bandages) that can work well to treat bruises, sprains, and strains. “Wrap-style elastic Ace bandages are good for compression and also work well on joint injuries,” he says.  

For sprains and strains, Dr. Woods advises students to use the RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) method of treatment. Rest for the first 24 hours. Ice the injury for 20 minutes every four hours. Use compression by wrapping the part of your body that was injured in an elastic bandage. Elevate your injured area. For example, if your child twisted an ankle, place it on a pillow, to keep it at a level higher than the heart. 

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If your child has a chronic condition, like asthma or a severe allergy, make sure to include enough medication to last until their next visit home or transfer their prescriptions to a pharmacy near their school.

13. Medication

Whether it’s a stock of inhalers or insulin, work with your child’s primary care provider to ensure they have supplies to take them through the first chunk of the semester.

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Dr. Besser recommends that you and your child talk to his or her physician about their health management plan before they depart for college to see if any changes need to be made.