Autoimmune disease. Maybe you have one. Or maybe your knowledge of autoimmune disease ends with hearing about Selena Gomez’s lupus diagnosis.
For the people who don’t know: Autoimmune diseases are a type of chronic illness that occurs when a person’s antibodies attack their healthy cells. In a typical person, the immune system works to protect the body from viruses and bacteria. In a person with an autoimmune disease, the immune system also attacks the body.
There are over 100 known autoimmune diseases to date. Some of the most common diseases are rheumatoid arthritis, Hashimoto’s and celiac disease.
The causes of autoimmune disease are not well understood but the effects — inflammation, fatigue, weight loss or gain — are evident. Spoiler alert: The reality is that having an autoimmune disease is tough, especially when you have to balance the side-effects with the challenges of attending college.
Here are 10 ways having an auto-immune disease affects your college experience.
1. It brings the “always tired” college kid stereotype to another level.
Balancing classes, work, extracurriculars and simply living life with a healthy amount of sleep is difficult, and as a result most college students simply aren’t getting enough sleep.
The fatigue that often accompanies autoimmune disease doesn’t help though, as it can occasionally make you feel like a 70-year-old with osteoporosis. The visible symptoms, such as eye bags, only serve to emphasize your “always tired” look, even on the days you feel great.
2. Symptoms can be overlooked or misidentified as “just stress.”
Stressed-out is not an uncommon state for college students. With everything going on, it’s easy to ignore symptoms or attribute fatigue and abdominal pain to poor mental health.
But if your symptoms extend past poor digestion, or continue even during an extended vacation, an autoimmune disease might be the explanation. Regardless of the root cause, taking charge of your health is important. Taking the time to visit a doctor will offer you more insight.
3. There’s NEVER anything to eat on campus.
Let’s face it, if you’ve got an autoimmune disease, you probably have dietary restrictions. While a specific diet seems obvious for people with celiac or an irritable bowel disease (IBD), food sensitivities and IBS are common among people with autoimmune disease.
Cooking meals at home every day is ideal, but many college students don’t have the time, the energy or the skill to consistently cook meals. For students with strict diets, the limited food options on campus can be a nightmare, especially if you have to worry about cross-contamination.
4. College gets a lot more expensive.
The cost of having a chronic disease can add up, especially if mom and dad aren’t paying your bills. The medical costs of autoimmune disease, including doctor visits, blood tests and medications add up to hundreds of dollars every year, even with insurance.
In addition, paying extra for gluten-free or anti-inflammatory food options can add up. All of these additional financial burdens can add to the pre-existing stress of having to actually pay for college itself. Fortunately, there are scholarships made specifically to help alleviate costs associated with chronic conditions.
5. You become a pro-procrastinator.
Procrastination is all fun and games until you have no other choice. For students with autoimmune disease, symptoms often come in unpredictable flare-ups that result in being unable to complete work.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself cramming an entire month’s worth of incomplete work into the one week you are feeling healthy enough to actually do it. But, let’s be honest, you’d probably strategize your workflow to be rushed the night before your work is due regardless, just like every other college student.
6. You learn to speak up for yourself.
There’s no need to forgo accommodations at the expense of your health. Need an extension on an essay so you can take time to rest? Want to make sure your “gluten-free” salad was actually prepared to gluten-free? At a certain point, you have to overcome any fears of being an inconvenience and just ask.
Communicating your needs to other people not only helps you to navigate life with a chronic condition, it helps others become more conscious of how they can accommodate to invisible disabilities.
7. The FOMO is real.
Constantly having to cancel on study sessions, weekend outings and dates sucks. To feel like you’re missing out is frustrating. What’s worse is that canceling can make you out to be a flaky person, especially in situations where the people around you don’t have a good understanding of the seriousness of your disease.
It’s key to build a strong support system of friends who are understanding and will continue to include you, even after you’ve been forced to back out multiple times.
8. You become the self-care guru of your friend group.
No one knows self-care better than you. You’ve done the research on redness-reducing skincare routines, anti-inflammatory diets and energy-boosting techniques, and you understand the importance of prioritizing your health.
When your friends aren’t feeling well, chances are you can sympathize with their struggle and offer up some wellness advice.
9. It can impact your mental health.
People with autoimmune diseases are 45% more likely to struggle with mental illness. It’s no surprise. A flare-up can be really isolating. Stress, insecurity and crippling pain caused by symptoms are just a few reasons someone with an autoimmune disease might not leave their room for days.
For freshmen and transfer students, finding a support system can be especially difficult when you’re too ill to go out. This can have a drastic impact on your mental well-being. Be aware of your risk and take measures to curb mental health crises before they arise.
10. You’re not the only one.
Autoimmune diseases are common. In fact, 23.5 million Americans live with autoimmune disease.
Finding other people on campus who share your struggles is one way to navigate your disease. There are also multiple online forums and even a Reddit community where people with autoimmune conditions can connect and share their stories.