Ah, the early days of fall. Leaves are beginning to brown, there’s a nip in the air and, of course, a veritable plague is sweeping the Northwestern campus. Call it what you want: the freshman flu, virus, pandemic or whatever — in any case, every first-year student has felt its presence in one way or another.

To learn the ugly truth about the outbreak, I talked to two first-years with opposite experiences: one, Harriet Fardon, who is in perfect health and another who is, perhaps, the sickest of any student on campus. In fact, she is so sick, she’d rather not be named in this article. Remarkably, the two are roommates.

When I asked Fardon how she avoided getting sick, her answer was straight to the point: “I honestly have no earthly idea! I live with a very sick person, and most of my friends are very sick, and I have no idea how I haven’t gotten it.” Fardon’s health is made even less probable by the truly abysmal condition of her roommate. “I feel like most of the people I know, it’s more of just a common cold. [My roommate] is, like, ill.”

"Ill" is an apt descriptor for this freshman. The list of her symptoms is horrendously long: watery eyes, a sore throat, stuffy nose, chills, sweats and spontaneous bloody noses have been troubling her since she contracted the disease at the end of Wildcat Welcome.

“Oh, I got a headache, too,” she added, “but that’s probably ‘cause of the bloody nose and the ear infection.”

Her symptoms made a trip to Searle inevitable. There, she got her official diagnosis of a sinus infection, an ear infection and — topping it all off — a strain of strep throat. Thus, her first tip for getting over the sickness was pretty straightforward: drugs! Prescribed, of course.

She is taking amoxicillin in what she referred to as “a big boy dosage.” When she’s been sick before, a 500 mg dose did the trick, but now, she’s been prescribed 875 mg. Such an intense drug means she’s also taking a probiotic to avoid side effects from the antibiotic. And for those of you who are sick but not that sick, don’t worry — she’s well-stocked on over-the-counter medicines too. She is “religiously” taking Robitussin, Mucinex, Dayquil, Advil, and a nasal spray; her insides are a cocktail of medications.

Her extensive collection of medications. Photo by Jude Cramer / North by Northwestern

Both Fardon and her roommate also strongly recommended sleep as a healing method. “When I sleep, I sleep deep,” said Fardon.

“I’ve been trying to sleep nine hours a night,” added her roommate, “but I find that I can’t breathe. So that’s been very difficult for me.” I can relate to this from my own experience with the freshman flu; a stuffy nose can leave you suffocating in your own bed.

Because she “can’t be more than five feet from a tissue box at all times,” Fardon’s roommate has devised a foolproof solution for the late-night sniffles: a bedside shelf, affectionately referred to by both girls as a “bed-shelfy.” This way, a tissue is never farther than arm’s reach.

Pop a tissue box on a bedside shelf like this one to keep your nose clear without getting out of bed. Photo by Jude Cramer / North by Northwestern

The girls also hypothesized that party culture was contributing to the spread of the disease. “I don’t think it’s helpful that everyone’s hooking up and sharing drinks,” Fardon said.

“But see, like, I have had no hookups and no drinks!” her roommate replied.

“Nor have I,” Fardon responded. “And yet, one of us is sick and one is not.”

Conclusion: who knows? The only concrete strategy Fardon could identify for avoiding the disease was in her drinking habits.

“I’ve been drinking some tea,” she offered, struggling to articulate how to stay healthy. Really, she feels she owes her health to dumb luck, but in terms of a strategy for avoiding the outbreak, drinking lots of tea and water is the closest she can get.

To get some more concrete answers about the sickness, I reached out to Dr. Robert Palinkas, Executive Director of Northwestern University Health Service (NUHS). Over email, he told me that the health service “sees 150–200 people” on a busy day, with the top ten symptoms including “upper respiratory illnesses, pharyngitis, cough, runny nose, bladder infections and sinusitis.” Translating the technical jargon, that essentially amounts to the common cold, sore throats and generally feeling horrible.

Dr. Palinkas also warned that things aren’t going to get better as the year wears on: “This year we are expecting a tough flu season, so we at NUHS are revamping our flu delivery system to be more efficient.” Look out for an announcement from Searle about when flu shots will become available on campus so you don’t fall victim to yet another disease!

If you’ve managed to stay healthy thus far, Dr. Palinkas recommends standard measures like “a balanced diet, adequate sleep, managing stress,” for which he refers students to CAPS, “and of course no smoking or vaping, and avoidance of excessive alcohol.” So it turns out the girls were right: lay off the partying!

Ultimately, avoiding the plague isn’t impossible, but it is no easy feat. Instead, first-years should simply hope for the best and apply some of the above strategies when the illness inevitably rears its ugly head. And remember, no matter how bad your health may seem, at least you’ll always be doing better than one unnamed freshman coughing her way across campus.