The student experience – would it be complete without microbes?

29 Aug 2019

There are many experiences which link students regardless of discipline and level, but I have to argue that microbial infections have to be one of the main ones. Every time I returned to university after a holiday I became ill. From the spluttering and sneezing of my fellow students it was easy to see I was not alone. It made me think.

What infections can students encounter and where will these microbes be hiding?

First fiend – the Freshers’ flu

Freshers’ flu is something I hadn’t heard of until I started uni but I quickly came to know it as the first flu of the academic year. A quick google search brought up a Wikipedia snippet I couldn’t ignore - “common symptoms include fever, sore throat, severe headache, coughing and general discomfort. The illness may or may not include actual flu and is often simply a bad cold” [1]. I can’t help but feel the author was telling students to stop complaining and to get on with their general discomfort. 

Definition and symptoms aside, I think freshers’ ‘flu’ is something all students have experienced. It is undoubtedly caused by mixing students from far and wide, each bringing their own germs. With each ‘new’ germ, your body is at risk of infection as previously unencountered viruses are lurking and waiting to hijack your body. The most important tool to defend against microbial attackers is your immune system. The healthier you are the better your chances of avoiding viral infection. However, the induction week of uni is usually filled with opportunities to weaken your immune system including stress, alcohol, junk food and lack of sleep [2]. These factors drop your bodies defence and next thing you know the freshers’ flu has won. 

Freshers’ flu has enough impact that Paul Davie focused his master’s project on modelling the epidemiology. He found the main transmission was through airborne viruses, and infections occurred in 2 main places: residential halls and lectures. Furthermore, the fresher’s flu epidemiology showed higher incidence among friend groups [3]. So, the more time you spend with a new friend, the more chance there is of you catching a cold from them. I have even made stronger friendships based on how they reacted to my infection (potentially from them). For me a true friend will make fun of my sickness but still care enough to pass the tissues.

Messy house grossness

If we can blame lecturers for the contraction of an infection, can we also catch something from our student accommodation? Thankfully, my expose to messy student houses was rare as I lived at home for uni. However, from visiting friends, the one image I associate with student homes involves sinks piled high in dishes and overflowing bins. I completely understand why someone won’t wash their housemate’s dishes, but could this decision put you at risk?

Consider the dirty dishes for a second - a nice piece of ceramic or plastic coated in food debris perfect for hungry microbes. The longer the dishes sit unwashed, the more time there is for microbes to colonise and multiply. Colds and flus are less likely to be a problem as they can’t replicate without their host and they are short lived outside the body losing viability after 1 day. Instead, the infections from the kitchen are likely to be from bacteria that cause stomach bugs including Escherichia coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter jejuni  and Clostridioides difficile. C. difficile is particularly long lived and can survive for 5 months [4]. If you get a stomach bug, it may be because of the student kitchen. Still worth ignoring the dishes? 

The best way to avoid getting sick in the student kitchen are simple enough – wash the dishes and clean the surfaces. But wait… before you rush off to do the dishes, the sponges are likely to contain ample bacteria too. A study of bacteria in student kitchens found the sponges had an average of 76 CFU/g, 10 -20 times higher than on the draining rack and sink drain respectively. The bacteria on the sponge included Pseudomonas, Enterobacteriaceae (like E. coli and Salmonella), and Staphylococcus aureus [5]. So, before you clean the kitchen, grab a new sponge, or microwave the old one for a minute to kill all microbial inhabitants [6]

Is the student experience enhanced by microbes?

Of course, there are other infections students can be exposed to like a meningitis outbreak which occurred during my undergrad. However, the most common seem to be viruses spread in lectures/ student homes and stomach bugs linked to the student kitchen. Exposure to these microbes will boost our immunity and as annoying as the infection can be, your body will generally quickly overcome it and be stronger for it.

Regardless, I must conclude that the student experience wouldn’t be complete without the group suffering brought on by a microbial infection from your peer group. It gives us something to moan about other than the workload!


Further reading 
[1] Wikipedia (2018). Freshers’ Flu [Online]. Available from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freshers'_Flu 

[2] Collins J. (2018). Freshers’ flu: causes, symptoms and cures [online]. Available from: https://www.savethestudent.org/save-money/health/freshers-flu.html 

[3] Davies P (2015). Simulating the “Freshers’ Flu” An individual-level simulation approach utilising social networking and epidemiological models with a spatial component. University of Southampton, Faculty of Business and Law, MPhil thesis 

[4] NHS (2018) How long do bacteria and viruses live outside the body? [online]. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/common-health-questions/infections/how-long-do-bacteria-and-viruses-live-outside-the-body/ 

[5] Hassan K & El-Bagoury M (2017). The domestic student kitchen: a microbiological hazard? Journal of Pure and Applied Microbiology, 11: 1687-1693

[6] Wynne E (2016) Do the dishes: why you should keep up with the washing up [online]. Available from: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-05-19/do-the-dishes-why-you-should-keep-up-with-the-washing-up/7429178