Getting Through School Days When Sick, Tired or Not Feeling It

In the years 2015-2016, more than 7 million students missed 15 or more days of school in the US. This problem on chronic absenteeism names a few common factors, like the disparity between incomes, lack of resources and means including transportation, and of course, the general problems in relation to poor mental and physical health, as well as safety.

Like any well-oiled, high-functioning machine, students need regular downtime and maintenance checks to prevent them from breaking down, which could mean a lot of horrible things (canceled plans, unproductive days, and generally, not being able to go out). But what does it actually mean to be sick in school?

Table of Contents

Various Health Reasons

A young woman lies in bed with a laptop and blows her nose in a napkin. Seasonal cold or flu concept

Lots of American students can attest that at least once in an academic year (or their whole college lives), they’ve suffered minor ailments including the common cold and fever. That’s a very typical scenario that would force students to go to class with the worst kind of symptoms (imagine spewing all kinds of germs, sneezing everywhere) or take a raincheck when it comes to entering classes, which is definitely a bummer. (Face it: more often than not, a missed class could mean a whole lot of catching-up.)

When you’re living the dorm life far away from the comforts of home, things could get even more difficult. With no one to take care of you and provide for your needs, you’d wish even more than ever your mom was just beside you, cooking your favorite soup and preparing your medicine. And when the symptoms come out even worse than they started (i.e. perpetual dizziness, frequent trips to the toilet, generalized weakness, or getting the urge to vomit every single hour), you wouldn’t necessarily be able to think straight and do something immediately to make yourself feel better.

Of Heartbreak, Depression, and Feeling Under the Weather

Collage group of sad depressed people. Unhappy men women

Aside from apparent physical ailments, college burnout could be one of the most common reasons why students feel under the weather (or feel like skipping class in general). In 2019, the World Health Organization added burn-out as part of the list of occupational phenomena in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), which could also be a very real experience for students. According to the American Institute of Stress, burnout symptoms “include irritability, fatigue, depression, overwhelm, anxiety and avoiding work or social settings.”

The American Psychological Association reports that, over the past few years, the number of college students with psychological problems soared. Depression, anxiety, and stress rank as the top mental and emotional health concerns experienced by students, according to counselors. This is commonly described by students as “feeling drained”, “socially isolated” or generally experiencing an extreme “brain fog” or mental block, keeping them from performing in school at optimal levels. This may be due in part to increasing school requirements, social stress, or the anxiety brought about by changes in their environment.

The factors that trigger disinterest in attending classes and detachment from the idea of finishing college vary from one student to another, and so do their coping mechanisms. Different strokes, as they say, but it’s important to establish healthy coping habits and delineate them from detrimental activities, such as recreational drugs, smoking, and heavy drinking.  Ultimately, these factors paint a clearer picture of how college requires tremendous effort to get used to.

sad looking student outdoor

Additionally, when we enter college, we may encounter different milestones in our lives, including getting to know other people and building romantic relationships. After all, young adults are expected to explore the realm of dating and intimacy until they eventually settle down (or don’t). When these relationships don’t work out as expected, they may get in the way of our other priorities – perhaps the pain of going through a break-up would come unexpectedly, and give you more stress on top of academics and after-school commitments. In any case, that would be one hellish experience that you must prepare for –  physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Apart from the stresses of school and romantic relationships, there are also students who juggle family responsibilities on top of a full schedule. Some students work full or part-time jobs and take care of their children while pursuing their degrees because they are the breadwinners in the family, and that kind of living arrangement could lead to bouts of exhaustion, and possibly health problems.

Experts suggest these extremely helpful ways to soldier on during those days when you simply can’t get through your college day because of health issues, emotional upheavals, or because you are feeling lethargic and whatnot.

So, how exactly do I cope?

Gradually change your mindset for better outcomes.

Mindset Opposite Positivity Negativity Thinking Concept

Generally speaking, students find it challenging to complete their degrees. At any given point, students would agree that they generally have too much on their plates. You might think the likely culprit will be the accessibility to affordable education, or anything related to the lack of privilege. A college experiment, however, revealed that the real culprit is that most college students lack the strategy to study efficiently and encourage productivity. It is typically human nature to get distracted by a lot of things, and nowadays it’s definitely easy to be off track with our routines. It is definitely a downward spiral of exchanging guilt and unproductivity, which could decrease your motivation to go to school.

Stanford University’s take on the same is something worth noting, as it underscores metacognition—which refers to ‘thinking how you think about thinking’ within the context of college grades or performance. Goal-setting, cliché as it may sound, will help you to stick to the idea that you need to achieve what you came to college for. Essentially, as we look inward for our “big why”, we are less likely to waste our time. It’s also less likely that students would think about playing hooky from class, once they put their motivations in order. Self-assessment is the first step to overcoming the struggle that comes with studying.

Another type of assessment under this category is asking yourself lots of questions. This entails being more mindful of every action and continuously figuring out problem areas by evaluating yourself, asking about the purpose of every action. Whether you justify your answers or keep on explaining your answers, this process will help you grasp a better understanding of the situation.

Pull yourself together and show up in class.

student learning on line with headphones and laptop. mixed race asian chinese model.

While skipping class because of a boring teacher or general lack of interest may sound reasonable for college students, missing class more than twice in a semester spells disaster for you. The old adage says “80% in life is showing up,” so go ahead and be present in class. Once you are able to do this, you will feel a surge of fulfillment because you were able to get through the slump – now, your next ordeal would be to figure out a way to keep yourself engaged in class.

If you’re a part-time student attending an evening or hybrid class, you may be tempted to skip the actual class and watch it online instead. While this may be a case-to-case basis, attending an actual class may give you a new perspective about tackling a certain topic, application, or examples. On actual classes, your professors will get you ‘engaged’ by asking questions or discuss and idea and help you understand the topic further. It would also be easier to study using the online class platform or textbook later on.

Additionally, if you’re physically sick but need to go to class because of important activities, make an effort to keep yourself presentable and comfortable. Take a warm shower to get rid of bacteria (also to soften your secretions and clear nasal passages), dress lightly and comfortably, and make sure to keep yourself hydrated all throughout the day. If needed, wear a mask to protect yourself and your colleagues – this is also considered as common courtesy.

As you arrive in class, make sure to inform your professor that you’re feeling sick, so that they wouldn’t worry if you suddenly sneeze or need to go to the comfort room in the middle of the lesson. Try to sit at the back of the class to avoid disturbing the whole class with your symptoms – this set-up would also allow you to sneeze and cough easily without feeling too self-conscious.

Get enough rest.

Young female student takes a nap during studying, lying on the floor. High angle view.

In college, you must learn the art of juggling but balancing school, work (for adult learners), relationships, and goals can take a toll on your life. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the recommended amount of sleep for adults is 7 hours or more per night.

However, in the US most adults are getting sleep-deprived – the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep, which is definitely critical for optimal health outcomes. Sleep deprivation is also a typical ordeal for most college students because of the academic and extracurricular requirements that they must accomplish. But sleep deprivation can lead to a number of health problems, including mental health problems, weight gain, and decreased alertness.

The way to avoid this is to create a ‘calm’ space in your room. Play relaxing music before going to bed, avoid social media beyond the wee hours of the morning, trying to stay away from additional cups of coffee after 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and replacing energy drinks with healthier snacks and drinks can help you sleep better at night. The bottom line: practicing good sleep hygiene practices would save you from a lot of future troubles. You can also pack up on healthy snacks and meals, such as nuts, salads, and light sandwiches during downtimes to avoid having to eat out.

When you’re already sick, it’s best to avoid pushing your physical limits too much – during breaks in between classes, try to hang out at lowkey spaces (i.e. library, lounges, or anywhere that’s well-ventilated with fewer crowds). If your dorm room is nearby, you can also spend your break there and rest better. Don’t interact with too many people, and keep your head down a bit – we know that misery loves company, but you need to contain that nasty ailment, so avoid passing it on to someone else by distancing yourself a bit.

Prepare your arsenal and stock-up on the essentials.

Happy teen taking a omega 3 vitamin pill on a table at home

If you feel a cold or cough coming down, it’s best to stock-up on OTCs (over-the-counter medications) and multivitamins (containing Vitamin C and Zinc) before it turns into a full-blown sniffle fest. If you prepare ahead of time, you will thank yourself later on, as there will come a time that you will be too weak to go out for your essentials.

Try to visit the nearest CVS or Target, or your local campus store for fever medicines, throat lozenges, pain relievers, cough medicines, antidiarrheals, and/or nasal decongestants. Better yet, create your own medicine kit, as this would save you from future inconveniences. You can also create a separate kit in your school bag just in case.

Don’t forget hygiene essentials as well, such as hand sanitizers, wipes, and tissues. You can also add soothing/relieving agents, like tea and honey, which can be good for respiratory symptoms. If you’re suffering from stomach discomforts and diarrhea, you can add electrolyte drinks (such as Gatorade) and plain crackers to relieve cramping episodes.

Additionally, when you take in medications for your symptoms, always stick to the recommended dosage. If you have a prescription, pay attention to the indicated time and amount of medicine that you’re allowed to take within a certain period of time, and don’t try to crank-up the dose without consulting your doctor or pharmacist. You wouldn’t want to overdose, so medicate responsibly!

Drink lots and lots of fluids – stay hydrated!

woman drink water with health concept in the kitchen

Remember when you got sick and felt so much better after your mom made you some warm soup? When you’re sick, it’s best to load up on fluids. Being dehydrated will worsen any respiratory or gastrointestinal symptoms, that’s why you should do your best to drink up regularly. You can drink fluids rich in electrolytes, or eat fruits with high water content.

Additionally, when you feel your skin and mucous membranes drying up, you may want to apply moisturizer or some lip balm for added protection. You can also invest in a humidifier or air purifier, which can significantly make the air quality in your room better. This will assist you while you recover from a bad case of flu or cough.

Visit your Campus Health Center.

young man in campus clinic

If you’ve been sick for over two days, it might be best to visit your campus health center or school clinic. Have a professional check your condition; you paid for this service after all! University medical staff are one of the most approachable and helpful people in school. And yes, always get your flu shots yearly, as this would significantly decrease the chances of you getting sick within the year.

Depending on your condition, your university physician can help you get better by prescribing appropriate treatment, or they may suggest that you visit an urgent care facility to assist you better. Please don’t take this kind of medical advice for granted, and get yourself checked! If you need to visit the ED, inform one of your classmates and your professors that you’re sick and will be out for consultation.

When sick, stay at home.

Bored young man using laptop computer while sitting at the kitchen table

Of course, there are days when we suffer from ailments that actually force us to take the day-off. When we feel a big one coming up, it’s best to just throw in the towel and rest at home. This kind of advice may seem counter-intuitive, but there’s a specific reason why – when you’re sick, you should maximize the period of time that you spend resting and recovering, as this would impact the amount of time it takes for you to recover. Additionally, if you’re suffering from a contagious condition, staying at home would decrease the risk of you passing it on to your classmates. Causing an outbreak won’t be fun for anyone!

Give your professors a heads-up if your doctor tells you to take a few days off school and make an effort to compensate for your absences. Show your interest in catching up when you miss school for several days at a time. Ask your professors what they require from you, such as hospital paperwork or a note from the campus health center, to prove that you indeed needed to take those days off.

Eat well, eat healthily.

A handsome young Asian man is happy and is eating fruit yoghurt in the modern restaurant. Health care concept

If you live in a dorm, you may be a frequent customer of your school’s dining hall. More often than not, school canteens serve easy to prepare food such as pizzas, burgers, fries, and other tasty options which may not be too conducive for recovering. If you can, try to ask about healthier options that they can serve – some cafeterias offer healthy breakfast food like salads, yogurt, cereals, and oatmeal, which are rich in nutrients and could help you feel more satiated.

If this option is not available, you can buy food ahead of time at your local grocery. Try to lean in on “recovery food” such as citrus fruits, vegetables, soups, and lean meats.

Fight the boredom.

Beautiful bored and tired somnolent student at home

In college, life can go on “in circles” and get boring. For energetic individuals, the monotony can be too much! And it’s easy to lose interest with those urgent assignments and projects piling up – some college kids even feel paralyzed at some point when they feel helpless with their workload. You can, however, change a few things to keep things interesting.

For many, finding a new place to do schoolwork (other than the lackluster dorm or boring bedroom) does wonders to their outlook, focus, and productivity. If your dormitory permits it, you can study in different areas of the building where you don’t usually hang-out. The novelty of this idea will kickstart your motivation in no time! You can try working in the school library to foster a change of space or spend your weekends at a coffee shop where you can loosen-up and destress. If you’re used to studying alone, why don’t you try studying in a group on some days? Perhaps this will help bring variety and a change of pace in your routine, so don’t be afraid to try it!

Scheduling a fun activity also does the trick. Achieving a perfect work-life balance should be one of the skills that you should master while you’re in college. Working hard and acing your academics should not mean living in a monastery – it doesn’t have to be dull! Check out fun events nearby, socialize, and get out of your comfort zone. If you have hobbies that you used to get into when you were in high school, rediscover them – they may pay off in the end!

Try to find your crowd composed of people who could pull you up and bring out your best qualities. A solid support group within the school is an important part of college life, so try to open up yourself to others!

Get a mental break.

mental health

College life introduces you to stress levels you never thought you would. Exploring a museum or an art exhibit at a relaxed pace, whether within or without your school, is considered a “healing” activity that improves your mood and ability to focus overall.  This activity, according to experts, keeps your brain from “overheating” while enabling you to appreciate art and encouraging learning.

There are lots of ways to get that much needed mental break: there are apps such as Headspace and Calm which can help you with mindfulness practice and shutting out all the noise in your life. If you want to reap some physical benefits as well, you can try yoga and pilates to boost your mental health and core strength.

Another tip is to get in touch with your high school friends or see your family and loved ones every weekend if you must. Reconnecting with the people who are dear to you gives you that surge of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, which are neurochemicals connected to happiness and overall sense of wellbeing. School breaks should give you that chance to hang out with people whom you shared fun and memorable times with.

Make plans but go easy on them.

Travel planning on computer

If you happen to be working and studying at the same time, see how one affects the other. You can definitely earn your degree while being employed, but if work interferes with a heavy school load–and vice versa—reconsider. Strike a healthy balance that doesn’t compromise either. Additionally, be more realistic about your plans for the future, and cut out distractions where applicable.

Most students worry about their future careers—and the uncertainty they deal with can be quite upsetting. Try to remember that in order for you to survive this phase in your life, you must prepare to ride with the waves, and learn to enjoy life as it unfolds. When you’re too uptight with all your responsibilities and personal expectations, it can all blow up in your face and drive you to levels of frustration. When in doubt, get help from your school’s career resource center and be open to exploring career options while you are in college. Don’t go into overdrive just yet, this is just the beginning!

College can be downright daunting. Do what you must to keep yourself focused and motivated…but remember to keep your sanity while at it!