COVID-19: Common or Uncommon In College?

By Claire Jennings, Assistant Editor

Photos from Unsplash

Over the course of the pandemic, many people have panicked when they experienced the symptoms of typical illnesses because of the similarities to COVID-19. College students have had an especially hard time since a return to school in the fall because of the illnesses that already circulated in large numbers in years prior. The biggest question has become how to differentiate between COVID-19 and the symptoms of common illnesses both on and off college campuses. 

Marcus Spiske, Unsplash Images

Website “Everyday Health,” a reputable website about various medical conditions, identifies some different common conditions: meningococcal meningitis, cold and flu, foodborne illness, STDs and HIV, mononucleosis, strep infections, dating violence, and accidental injuries (“8 Top College Illnesses”). According to the CDC, Meningococcal meningitis occurs when bacteria infects the lining of the brain and spinal cord, causing swelling. Meningococcal meningitis often presents as a flu-like illness, but rapidly becomes worse. The most common symptoms include a fever, a headache, and a stiff neck. Mononucleosis is another serious illness on Everyday Health’s list. Commonly known as “Mono,” the symptoms of this nasty virus are extreme fatigue, a fever, a sore throat, body aches, and swollen lymph nodes. The CDC claims that Mono is most often spread by activities that cause the sharing of saliva such as kissing, sharing a toothbrush, or drinking after someone who is infected. 

Kelly Sikkema, Unsplash Images

Nurse Ole Moore works at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis and offered to shed some light on what illnesses are commonly seen in those that are college-age or are preparing to enter college. 

“Influenza is the most common illness I see among people of all age groups,” Moore said. “It can be a serious illness if not treated properly. I also see a lot of bronchitis, strep throat, and general stomach viruses.” 

Moore expressed that COVID-19 has made the job of hospital workers significantly more difficult. She has to be tested for the virus multiple times per week regardless of whether she experiences symptoms. She says that many symptoms of common illnesses overlap with COVID-19, making it harder for healthcare professionals to quickly determine which are indicators of the more severe virus. 

“A fever, headache, and cough are all symptoms of these common illnesses we see that overlap with COVID-19. It can be very difficult to assess a patient without a test,” Moore said.  

According to Princeton University’s medical staff, the top common college illnesses are allergies, colds and flu, conjunctivitis (“pink eye”), diarrhea, mononucleosis, and stomach aches (“Common Illnesses”). Some of these ailments are also symptoms of COVID-19, so what is the difference? The CDC reports that the most common symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, chills, a cough, shortness of breath, fatigue, muscle or body aches, a headache, new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion, and nausea. 

CDC, Unsplash Images

McKendree University nurses Beth Allan and Lisa Auten explained the struggle they’ve had this semester with the changes in what’s common. 

“The number one thing we’ve seen this year is COVID-related illness, either a positive test result or related symptoms that turn out to be something else,” Auten noted. “COVID has made it tricky to narrow down what the illness is that the patient is experiencing.” 

When asked what other common illnesses they see, the nurses agreed that Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs) are the second most common. They also do quite a few STI screenings, although few come back positive. Allan and Auten also noted that they have observed a rise in strep cases as the temperature and weather conditions rise and fall. 

The importance of illness extends beyond COVID-19, even if symptoms overlap. Remember to stay healthy and wash your hands frequently to prevent other illnesses, Bearcats! 

Works Cited

“Common Illnesses | University Health Services.” Princeton University, The Trustees of Princeton University,

Iliades, Chris. “8 Top College Illnesses – College Health Center – Everyday Health.”,

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