Back to school: 6 tips to manage IBD at college

Danielle LeavittI’m a 20-year-old rising junior at Harvard University and I have inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Growing up in Orlando, Florida, I participated in typical childhood activities and was what you would consider to be a “normal” kid.

But I was dealing with chronic, excruciating abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloody stools. At age 10, doctors diagnosed me with Crohn’s disease.

I went from one hospital visit to another and was prescribed various pills, injections and infusions, all of which failed at some point.

During high school, I was embarrassed to discuss my disease. Very few of my teachers and friends knew I had Crohn’s. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to manage school assignments, participate in athletics and still have a social life.

Heading to college

When it was time to research colleges, I worried about managing Crohn’s disease on my own. I would be responsible for taking my daily medication, getting blood work, and going to routine doctor visits. I also needed to be prepared in case I needed treatment for a flare.

After visiting Harvard, I felt the university was a perfect fit for me. I enjoyed everything about Cambridge—the people, culture, academics and athletics. I selected Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology (stem cell biology) as my major because stem cell research holds tremendous promise in finding a cure for Crohn’s and colitis.

My parents felt comfortable with Harvard because of its excellent campus health center and proximity to Boston Children’s Hospital. My doctor, Scott Snapper, is director of Boston Children’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center and leads the National Scientific Advisory Committee of the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA). He participates in gastroenterology research for Crohn’s disease and takes a personal interest in me.

6 tips to manage IBD

After two years at college, I’ve developed six tips for managing IBD that can benefit any college-age Crohn’s and colitis patient:

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Eat clean and healthy and find a campus meal plan that works for you.Eat clean and healthy and find a meal plan that works for you.

As a busy college student, you can easily make food choices based on convenience and not nutrition. Contact the campus dietician or food service manager, and discuss your dietary needs.

My dining hall director was very understanding and showed me a “gluten-free only” refrigerator. She also asked for my feedback in ordering different food options not already in stock.

Be honest with yourself about what’s healthy for you. Sugar can be a trigger for my flares, so I avoid it because the pain is not worth it.

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Take your IBD medications as prescribed.Take your medications as prescribed.

Try setting an alarm on your phone that reminds you, or begin a daily routine to take your medication at the same time every day. If you take medicine at a time that coincides with a class, bring your medicine to class.

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Consider how drinking will affect your IBD.Consider how drinking may affect your IBD.

Alcohol affects each IBD patient differently, so if you choose to drink, know your limits. If you are embarrassed, make sure you have a friend with whom you can talk to about it. You can carry a cup of water at parties if having your hands empty makes you uncomfortable. Make the best decisions for your health.

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Find time to relax and relieve stress.Find time to relax and relieve stress.

College’s academic demands, combined with extracurricular activities and social events, can cause you to mismanage your time. Don’t procrastinate on assignments—this can increase stress.

Sleep is important, and so is setting aside more time to relax. Plan activities with friends earlier in the evenings, and choose to attend only the most important events scheduled late at night.

For relaxation, try moderate exercise—like intramural or club sports. Or listen to music or socialize with friends. If you play a sport, alert your coach and trainer about your needs.

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Access IBD resources at your campus medical center.Don’t wait until you feel ill to access the resources at your college or a nearby medical facility.

Campus medical staff, disability services and local doctors are at your disposal. It’s important to learn about services before you need them.

It is also a good idea to contact the Office of Disabilities on your campus, which can help you with housing requests and other important services. My dorm room had an in-suite bathroom my freshman and sophomore year, which was important for privacy and accessibility. I also had a single bedroom where I could rest in between classes, but still have my roommates nearby.

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Connect with others. Connect with others.

You need others to lean on if you are ill. Talk to your roommates and friends about Crohn’s or colitis. Check out CCFA Campus Connection; it’s a terrific resource.

Students with IBD can absolutely live the college dream. The key is to be proactive and stay healthy.

Learn more about Boston Children’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center.

About the blogger: Danielle Leavitt is a rising junior at Harvard University and was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 10. She is actively involved with the CCFA. She has been a member of the CCFA National Council of College Leaders (NCCL) for two years, working to raise awareness of IBD at Harvard and in nearby cities and helping students manage logistics of Crohn’s and Colitis.