It is starting to be that time of year at Penn State when everyone is getting sick. Not a minute goes by in a lecture hall without hearing someone coughing or blowing their nose. But why is everyone getting sick at the same time? And how? Also, what are ways we can prevent this?
First, why do people get sick? People get sick when their immune system is weakened. This occurs when germs that contain the cold/flu virus get into our system. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine; when something infects our body- like viruses that causes the common cold- our body recognizes the antigens. Antigens are found on the surface of these cells, and our immune system recognizes that these are unfamiliar to our body. This then causes the immune system to react. The U.S. National Library of Medicine cites the first line of defense of the immune system- the innate/nonspecific immunity. The innate/nonspecific immunity includes coughing, tears, mucus, skin, fevers and stomach acid. This is the immune systems first line of defense as it is the body’s attempt to prevent antigens from further breaching one’s body. This causes what we think of as symptoms when we get a cold. A runny/stuffy nose, a cough, or fever. It causes what we constantly hear during lectures, people constantly coughing or blowing their nose. It’s the immune system’s first line of defense to these viruses entering our body.
But doesn’t it seem like everyone is getting sick at the same time? When I first got to school, I was in good health and felt fine. But then around mid-September is when I started to feel a cold coming on and when I began to notice the constant coughing occurring in classrooms. It seems that everyone at Penn State gets sick at the same time. When thinking about this, I thought of some common factors that affects every student: lack of sleep and stress- these are both common factors that at one time or another affects students at Penn State. But how do they effect our immune system and make all Penn State students seem to get sick at the same time?
College students face a lot of stress. We all know it. There are weeks where you have multiple tests in a row on top of other organizations you’re involved in, and a job, and a social life. At times its overwhelming. In a meta-analysis, performed by Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller, of over 300 studies there is a link between stress and the strength of the immune system. Segerstrom and Miller categorized the type of stress that most plagues college students as brief naturalistic stressors. This meta-analysis found that these brief naturalistic stressors affect the student’s immune system by decreasing the number of natural killer cells which are used to fight off viruses- like the common cold. It was also consistent in the study that long term stress caused the reduction in function of a person’s immune system. This could explain why everyone at Penn State seems to get sick at the same time. It all seems to happen at the first rounds of exams are approaching- which also means lots of stress. However, I know that I do not seem to every fully recover from being sick until I go home for Thanksgiving Break or Christmas Break. This relates to the fact that the longer a person is stressed- the more of a negative impact on their immune system. The fact that everyone at Penn State gets sick around the same time can be related to their stress levels that are having a negative impact on their immune system.
Another of my proposed common factors of all students that could lead all students to getting sick at the same time was lack of sleep. As college students, we do not get the recommended eight to nine hours of sleep every night. It’s a good night if we get six hours. Why so much lack of sleep? Between studying and self inflicted lack of sleep- going to parties or binge watching Netflix- students do not get enough sleep on a regular basis. In a study conducted at Carnegie Mellon University, researchers asked a sample of 153 people to self report: length of sleep, quality of sleep, and how rested they felt. The researchers put nasal drops containing the flu virus into the participants. The study then found that those with self reported poor sleep efficiency were more likely to contract the virus than other participants- it also controlled for multiple factors like BMI, age, race, sec, and other factors. However, there are no mechanism found in this experiment. However, from the class example of smoking and lung cancer- where there is still no known biological mechanism. It is thought that lack of sleep hurts your immune system as there are not as many natural killer cells- similar to the effect of stress on the immune system. And there is an increase of pro-inflammatory cytokines which is one of the producers of fever- a symptom of the common cold. As with the example of smoking and lung cancer, there are enough studies that link the immune system and quality of sleep together that one believes that they are connected even though we do not know the biological mechanism. I would say that it is safe to assume that if you want to maintain a healthy immune system, you would get an efficient and minimum of 8 hours of sleep, especially if you wanted to avoid the Penn State plague!
So what does this mean? It means that we can infer that the reason all Penn State students are getting sick at the same time is because of constant stress from exams and lack of sleep from being college students. This is my own conclusion made from personal experience (anecdote observation) but can also be proved through science. The effects of stress and sleep on student’s immune systems can be done through a meta-analysis of studies. Scientist conducted these studies for stress and concluded that the stress from tests has a negative impact on your immune system. I think there should be a meta-analysis of studies for lack of sleep on students as well. Also, there are enough students throughout the world that I propose a large sample study be conducted. I propose that it would be observational, participants would answer survey questions about their amount of sleep and their level of course work and also track the amount of times that they have gotten sick in the year. This study would be observational- therefore we would not be able to find a mechanism. However, like the observational studies done on the effect of smoking on people through their life time- this could potentially produce results that help us understand why students are so prone to things like ‘The Penn State Plague’ and why it effects the campus as a whole at the same times. I think that this is important because as someone who is year after year affected by the Penn State plague, I want to prevent it. Also, I think that everyone would benefit if we are not constantly hearing the coughing and sneezing throughout a lecture hall every 2 seconds.