Have I Got News for Flu

Freshers’ Flu (FF) – odds are you probably will get it at least once whilst at university. That being said, when I went to university years ago in another life, I stayed in halls and yet, I was never on the receiving end of the dreaded illness, even when people I lived with in second year were all suffering. When I came to Leeds I got it straight away in my first year, despite living by myself, and having no friends.

A good example of how FF works is the story of the Native American princess Pocahontas. In the Disney version, the film closes in sentimental style with our heroine still in America, waving goodbye to her lover John Smith. In real life, she was captured and ransomed by the English in a war with her tribe. She converted to Christianity, took the name Rebecca, and was married to a tobacco farmer. She then travelled to England at the behest of the Virginia Company, who were keen to promote the idea of the tamed “savage” as part of a marketing campaign. Pocahontas then died at the age of around 20, from some form of infection. This probably happened because she came from a far-away, isolated land, where the variety of pathogens were different from those in England. Her body would have dealt with a local flora of viruses and bacteria in America, and built up a natural immunity to some of them. In England though, her immune system would have been confronted with lots of other different strains of microbes, and her body had no chance to build up a defence in advance.

Fast forward to the current day, with people coughing like life-long smokers in your lecture theatre. It’s a similar, if usually less severe, story. What we call “Freshers’ Flu” is actually caused by an array of viruses. A virus is a very small pathogen which works like a guerrilla army invading an enemy stronghold. Imagine the army gets into the enemy base – your body, and takes over some of your cells. It then uses your cells like an arms factory to crank out more of itself, before the cell is destroyed by copies of the virus bursting out to invade more cells. This can make you feel crappy in general, but the virus can also make you sneeze and cough, which is its evolved way of trying to spread, either through being inhaled or getting on to surfaces and being transferred to the mouth or nose by hand.

Importantly, some of the things that make you more vulnerable to Fresher’s Flu are actually psychological. The induction at university is a difficult time for some of us. My first few weeks in Leeds were marked by anxiety, stress, occasional anger, and some depression that can accompany being in a new, unfamiliar environment. This is important because stress can have a real physiological effect on your ability to fight off an infection. Under stress, your adrenal glands produce cortisol, which dampens the immune system by reducing the inflammatory response. This in turn can make you more susceptible to the various strains of pathogen that will be floating about, brought to the university by your fellows.

Much like Pocahontas, students at Leeds Uni come from far and wide to study, bringing viruses with them they have immunity to – but you may not. Enter Freshers’ Week, with lots of immunologically weak people run down by stress, lack of sleep, poor diet and heavy drinking, going to lots of events with other people and having close contact (of one sort or another). To boot, all of this happens at the end of September which is the start of Flu season, where the cooling temperatures are favourable for viruses to spread. It’s an ideal environment for pathogens to thrive!

So, if you’re looking to avoid the dreaded FF, the best thing to do is to look after yourself, both mentally and physically:

  • Get enough sleep.
  • Don’t drink too heavily.
  • Try and make sure you don’t end up in the greasy take-away too often.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • And seriously, look after your psychological health.

If you feel you’re not coping; anxious, stressed, sad, depressed – get in touch with Nightline or the university’s counselling service. You may get ill from being part of a larger community, but you can benefit from being part of one too.


Leo Kindred

Science Editor


Image: Brian Judd