How to Stay Healthy When Your Roommate Is Sick

College dormitories are well-known for germ infestation and dissemination. What can you do to protect yourself if your roommate is sick? And what should every college student know about the most common infections on campus?

Sanaz Majd, MD
6-minute read
Episode #222

If you’ve had your own bedroom your entire life, suddenly having to share one may come as a little bit of a shock. Although if you are lucky to score a good roommate, it can truly make your freshman year a more positive experience. No doubt, it still can take some getting used to. You are now forced to share a small living space, and like a new husband and wife, you will be learning to compromise—an imperative life skill.

Learning to share a physical living space is one thing, but sharing each other’s germs is another. Germs tend to disseminate much more rapidly between close contacts.  And it doesn't really get much closer than sharing a 200-square foot room. 

So how can you protect yourself when your roommate is sick? And just as vital, how can you protect your roommate when you are sick?

There are many types of bugs that can infest a dorm room. I discussed a few that are surprisingly contracted via your feet. But what about everywhere else? Spreading germs through your hands and the air are even more common.

By far the most common two categories of bugs that tend to disseminate like wild fire in college dormitories are the cold/flu viruses and those dreadful stomach illnesses. So let's delve into the two in detail and learn how you can protect yourself from getting sick while in college.

Cold/Flu Viruses

The cold and flu viruses can induce very similar symptoms:

1.       Sore throat

2.       Fever

3.       Malaise

4.       Runny and stuffy nose

5.       Post-nasal drip – as a result of number four

6.       Cough – with or without phlegm

In fact, the typical course often begins with the first three (sore throat, fever, malaise) initially, and continues to worsen in severity as each day passes.  The severity often peaks somewhere on day 3 to 5, and then as those symptoms dissipate, the next three set in. By day 7-10, most patients have good improvement. They will unlikely be back to their normal selves, but they feel like they can finally get on with their lives. However, that nasal discharge and post-nasal drip that causes that annoying cough can be persistent even beyond day 14.  But it should continue to improve through time.

The cold and flu viruses do have some key differences, however:

1.        The runny and stuffy nose: This is by far one of the key features of the common cold virus. In the typical cold virus, there tends to be an overwhelming amount of snot drainage. With the flu virus, not so much. Nasal symptoms may be present, but they are not overwhelming.

2.       Body aches: Generalized aches and pains all over are usually caused by the flu virus, and not the common cold.

3.       Fever:  Although variable, the flu virus tends to cause a more pronounced spike in temps when compared to the common cold. Although, there are some patients with the flu who may never display a fever.

4.       Fatigue:  If it’s one thing I tend to hear as the most bothersome symptom with the flu virus, it’s fatigue. Patients describe it similar to “being hit by a truck.” 

5.       Risk level:  Each year, up to 50,000 people die from the flu virus each year. And some are very healthy and/or young. It is a shock to see, but it happens too much.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.