Make Your Own College Medical Kit from a College Health Physician


For many of us, the time has come to start prepping for our kids to leave for college. Shopping lists may include shampoo, soap, shower caddy, mattress pad, storage bins, extra long sheets, travel mug, desk lamp, fan, etc. But have you thought about packing a college medical kit?

assortment of pills and tools in a college medical kitOne thing many families forget to pack for college is a college medical kit. But it’s not too late! You can mail a kit or bring one for parents’ weekend if you’re attending.

It is super important to have a well-thought-out college medical kit so that your baby (I mean adult- yikes) can provide themselves with the best care, and also know when higher level care is needed. Student health and student mental health services have been extremely burdened during COVID so it can be difficult to get a timely appointment. Knowing what to take for common allergies, for example, and having it on hand can allow your child to feel better quicker and keep attending classes. And knowing when a concern needs an appointment with student health services can help your child be more efficient about seeking help.

college student wrapped in a blanket and blowing her noseThink back to those snotty nose daycare days. College campuses are worse. Viral illness spreads like wildfire and students are often sick with upper respiratory infections much of the semester.

Here is what I send in my kid’s college medical kit:

(I’ve included the most common brand names in parenthesis, but it is NOT necessary to purchase brand names.)

For upper respiratory infections

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol)- for pain or body aches and fever
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, or Motrin) or Naprosyn (Aleve) – these are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) used for pain, inflammation, and fever
  • Cough medicine with dextromethorphan (anything labeled DM) to suppress coughs. This would often be used for an annoying cough that is keeping you awake at night or disrupting you in class.
  • Cough medicine with guaifenesin to loosen coughs and make you cough MORE (if that’s what you want/need). This would be used for a cough that feels like you have gunk in your chest that you need help coughing out. Remember, you may cough MORE with this.
  • Decongestant (Sudafed, if you can tolerate it)
  • Table salt for warm salt water gargles or soaking ingrown toenails/fingernails. (Please note: this actually really helps infection! It isn’t just an old wive’s tale. Warm water preferentially draws blood to an area (that’s why your skin gets red in a hot shower- increased blood flow to the skin). Blood carries your white blood cells which help fight infection, so it is helping to assemble infection-fighting troops exactly where they are needed. High salt concentrations KILL viruses and bacteria! )
  • Pulse oximeter– this is the number one most important tool to help determine how serious a respiratory illness is. This is a must-have for all students (and all households).
  • Thermometer
  • Neti pot (or saline nasal spray if you won’t use a neti pot, which I totally understand because they are miserable ((think jumping into a pool and getting water up your nose)) but they really are very effective at clearing a congested nose/sinus when used correctly a couple of times a day.)
  • Medical quality masks (surgical, KN95, N95)
  • At home COVID antigen tests
  • Tissues or soft toilet paper for blowing nose (dorm toilet paper is rough on sore noses)
  • Chapstick
  • Throat lozenges or cough drops
  • Hand sanitizer

Please note:

Combination cold medicines like Nyquil have acetaminophen, cough suppressant, and decongestant while Mucinex has many formulations with a variety of ingredients but all contain guaifenesin and some contain acetaminophen and dextromethorphan as well so check what you are buying if you choose this.)

Acetaminophen and ibuprofen (or Naprosyn, if preferred) can each be taken following the bottle instructions and can be taken TOGETHER if needed for fever and pain control. If taking a combination cold remedy like Nyquil or Mucinex, DO NOT ALSO TAKE ACETAMINOPHEN, or other acetaminophen-containing medications, since these products likely contain it already (there are some Mucinex products that do not contain acetaminophen, but check the label). You can, however, take the combination of cold medicines with the NSAID medications.

For hangover/vomiting/diarrhea

For injuries

  • Bandaids
  • First aid cream
  • Ace bandage wrap
  • Single-use ice packs- most students don’t have a freezer to access ice
  • A heating pad or hot water bottle or heat-up bean bag (if they have access to a microwave.)

For allergic reactions/rashes

  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Hydrocortisone cream
  • Athlete’s foot/jock itch spray or cream (antifungal cream)

For sexual health

  • Condoms (for all genders unless a penis is not involved ever)
  • Consider drink date rape drug testing strips if your kid thinks they would use them (I really wish this wasn’t on the list)

college students in classFor mental health

Many colleges offer free access to mindfulness apps like Headspace or Calm. Have your student check into this before school starts and maybe even start doing some of the exercises now to practice before the stress of school builds. If your school does not offer this, it is likely money well spent to subscribe. Mental health/substance misuse issues are the number one reason why kids have serious difficulty at college.

I’m a huge fan of this college health book by Dr. Jill Grimes which I have read cover to cover and offers great, easily accessible advice if your student has a problem.

Obviously, if your child takes any regular medication, they should have a good supply of it when they arrive at school and should be prepared with a plan with their prescribing provider for getting refills while they are away at school. This is especially true if they take any medications that are controlled substances like stimulants, benzodiazepines, or narcotics- or if they get highly specialized medical care. Also, think about a locking storage box to keep any controlled substances.

If your child has a chronic condition with a care plan established by their specialist, bringing a signed paper AND electronic copy of the care plan to school is extremely helpful if someone unfamiliar with them has to take care of them.

Discuss with your child if they would be willing to sign a release of information form so that providers in their new city can talk to you if an emergency occurs or your student needs assistance from you coordinating care. If you don’t have a signed release, providers are not allowed to discuss your student’s health with you. Your student can put limitations on what can and can not be discussed.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and successful year at college! They likely will get sick, they likely will struggle, but with the proper preparation, and your own college medical kit, the experience can be less stressful for all concerned.



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