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How to vaccine-prep your kids for college

Amy Wilkinson writer headshot By | July 30, 2019
Medically reviewed by Kristi C. Torres, Pharm.D.

You’ve helped them choose their electives, paid their first semester’s tuition, and even made sure they packed one of those handy little shower caddies: Your kids couldn’t be more prepared for the first day of college—or could they? When was the last time you checked their immunization records? 

As it turns out, freshman year is a critical time to ensure your kids are current on all their vaccines, says Kristen Feemster, MD, research director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and medical director of the Immunization Program and Acute Communicable Diseases at the Philadelphia Department of Health.

In fact, colleges require immunization records from incoming students.

“There are many important features of entering college that make being up to date on immunizations especially important,” she says. “For many students, they’re going to be living in a congregate setting—they may be living in a dormitory or sharing an apartment. There may be students who are planning to spend some time abroad as a part of their program or might be engaging in other work activities, like health sciences, that might increase their potential exposure.” 

You can request a copy of your student’s immunization record from their doctor’s office. A photocopy is usually due to the university’s registrar’s office.

College vaccination checklist

Typically, the following vaccinations are recommended for college:

  • Measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR)
  • Meningococcal
  • Human papillomavirus (HPV)
  • Influenza

And while many colleges and universities have their own set of required vaccines (i.e., one to two doses of measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and one to two doses of meningococcal are the most common, according to Dr. Feemster), you shouldn’t rely on the school’s shortlist to ensure your students are fully protected. Here are three important immunizations your children should have before heading off to campus:

Human papillomavirus (HPV)

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the U.S. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some 79 million Americans (mostly in their late teens and 20s) have the disease. And while HPV often clears up on its own, it can also cause some serious health issues. “The reason why we worry about HPV,” says Dr. Feemster, “is because it can lead to cancer—it’s known to cause cervical cancer and a few other anal or genital cancers.” The HPV vaccine is, therefore, one of the only vaccines to actually prevent cancer. (Though it does not protect against all strains of HPV.) 

The schedule: The HPV vaccine (one of the most common is known by the brand name Gardasil 9) is multi-dose. Doctors typically recommend administering the first dose at the age of 11 or 12 (before kids become sexually active), followed by a second dose at least six months later. If your child is 15 years of age or older when they receive their first dose, they’ll need three doses of the vaccine before starting college, on a schedule of zero, two, and six months, according to Dr. Feemster.  

Meningococcal (meningitis)

Meningococcus is a bacteria that can cause meningitis (swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord) and sepsis. Both can be life-threatening. “This is an infection that’s not very common compared to some other things like influenza, but when it does happen, it can take hold very quickly and make you very sick,” says Dr. Feemster. Meningitis can be spread through phlegm and saliva, and according to the CDC, college students are at a slightly elevated risk of contracting the disease, compared to their peers who are not attending college. 

The schedule: Another multi-dose vaccine, the first meningitis vaccine is usually administered around the age of 11 or 12, with a second dose at the age of 16. However, if your student is 16 or older when they get their first shot, they only need the one, according to Dr. Feemster. 

Influenza

The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of 6 months get the flu vaccine, and, says Dr. Feemster, students should be particularly mindful about rolling up their sleeves and getting the shot. “Especially on a college campus, where you are very close to your fellow students and friends, you may have even more opportunity for exposure,” she explains. “Getting a flu shot every year is an important part of general prevention activities.” According to research, however, only about 46 percent of college students get the vaccine. (That’s an F grade for Flu Shots 101!) 

The schedule: The influenza vaccine—which typically protects against the three-to-four most common types of the virus during a given season—should be given annually. FluMist and Flublok are some popular brand-name flu vaccines. The CDC recommends getting the flu shot by late October before the height of flu season. (It takes about two weeks for the antibodies to build up and protect against influenza.) If your student is heading off to college before the shot has been made available (usually sometime in August), they can get it on campus at student health services.

While the HPV, meningitis, and flu shots are imperative, Dr. Feemster recommends checking that your college-bound kids are current on all routinely recommended immunizations, especially MMR and varicella (chickenpox).  

Be sure to check out the CDC’s full list of recommended immunizations for adults 19 years and older:

  • Human papillomavirus (HPV): 2-3 doses based on age at initial vaccination
  • Meningococcal (MenACWY and MenB): 1-3 doses if at risk
  • Influenza (IIV, RIV, or LAIV): 1 dose per year
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (Tdap or Td): 1 dose of Tdap, then 1 dose of Td booster every 10 years
  • Measles, mumps, rubella (MMR): 1-2 doses if at risk
  • Varicella (VAR): 2 doses if born in or after 1980
  • Pneumococcal (PCV13 and PPSV23): 1-2 doses if at risk
  • Hepatitis (HepA and HepB): 2-3 doses based on vaccine
  • Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib): 1-3 doses if at risk