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Freshers' flu: how to stay healthy at university

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What is freshers' flu and how can you avoid it? Dietitian Emer Delaney explains why university students get sick in the autumn, and what they can do to help themselves stay healthy

The start of university is an exciting and full-on time – meeting new people, finding your way in the world and sharing germs that your immune system hasn’t met before. All this combined with a poor diet, less sleep, more stress and colder weather, can lead to the dreaded ‘freshers’ flu’ or even a Covid-19 infection.

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What is freshers' flu?

Freshers’ flu is a term used to refer to a cold-like virus, with symptoms including a sore throat, cough, high temperature and fever. It’s likely to affect university students in the autumn term, but the close proximity to new germs can also lead to teachers and lecturers falling ill.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has increased levels of anxiety it has also taught us a lot about viral transmission and infection. The good news is we can now put this new knowledge into action and take better steps to protect our health.

Lemon & ginger tea

What steps can I take to minimise my risk of freshers' flu?

First and foremost, practice good hygiene – this starts with hand washing. It may sound dull but remembering to wash hands regularly during the day will help minimise the spread of germs and as a result reduce the risk of infection. It may also be useful to keep a bottle of anti-bacterial gel on hand for when you don’t have access to hand-washing facilities. Before you take up your place at university go online and familiarise yourself with your college’s Covid-19 policy. It’s also a good idea to check out the healthcare services available to you so you have access to resources as soon as you start the new term.

How can I stay fit and healthy at university or college?

1. Eat well

Eating well at university can be a challenge. Being responsible for shopping will be a new experience for many, as will preparing and cooking meals. Students are often tempted by cheap and convenient meals, but processed food can have a lower nutritional value.

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It’s all about finding the right balance and keeping the ‘not so healthy’ foods such as burgers, pizzas or noodle pots as occasional fall-backs.

Beans, pulses and lentils are all healthy foods bursting with fibre, vitamins and minerals. They’re an excellent source of protein and cost significantly less than most meat and fish. You don’t have to spend a fortune on fruit and vegetables – frozen or canned are just as good and a fraction of the price.

A vegetarian one-pot, such as our double bean and roasted red pepper chilli, is a great place to start for fibre and nutrients. For comfort food when you’re unwell, try a bowl of chicken noodle soup or make a batch of orzo and tomato soup. Swap a baked potato for a healthier sweet potato, and top it with our big-batch bolognese for a budget-friendly dinner.

Discover more ideas for student cooking:

2. Stay active

University is the ideal time to try a new sport or activity and a great way to meet new friends. Physical activity also helps support the immune system.

3. Enjoy a drink…but not too many

No doubt alcohol will feature regularly during Freshers’ Week, however remember to stay within the recommended alcohol limits. That’s no more than 14 units a week – the equivalent of six pints of average-strength beer (4% ABV) or seven medium-sized glasses of wine (175ml, 12% ABV) a week.

Exceeding limits or recommendations is harmful to health and could put you at increased risk of an accident or injury.

Try not to drink on an empty stomach, stay hydrated, and aim to drink one glass of water after every alcoholic drink – this is a great way to keep hydrated and limit excessive intakes.

What steps can I take if I catch fresher’s flu?

While there is no cure, regular hand washing, keeping hydrated, taking rest and regular pain relief (if needed) with paracetamol or ibuprofen can help with the symptoms of viral infection.

Spend as little time as possible in communal spaces, such as living rooms and kitchens, in order to avoid passing germs on to others.

Some people find a comforting drink with added honey, such as lemon and ginger tea, can help soothe sore throats.

Eat regular meals made up of low GI carbohydrates such as brown pasta or wholegrain bread; include lots of beans, pulses and lentils, vegetables, oily fish such as canned mackerel or herring; snack on fruit and nuts; and keep ready meals to a minimum.

Don’t forget that while you may well have freshers' flu there may be the possibility that it could be something else such as Covid-19 or meningitis. Speak with your healthcare provider if you or others around you are concerned.

If you test positive for Covid-19 follow the NHS guidance.

Learn more with our guides…
Student kitchen essentials – what to buy for university
How to get rid of a cold
Essential recipes for university
What do vitamins do?
Top 10 vegan student recipes

Have you experienced freshers' flu? Tell us how you stayed healthy in the comments below.


This page was reviewed on 29th June 2022 by Kerry Torrens.

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Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a registered nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in personalised nutrition & nutritional therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food. Find her on Instagram at @kerry_torrens_nutrition_

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