An illustration of a nurse holding a vaccine.

If your child is a college student—or soon to be one—making sure he or she is fully vaccinated is critically important, especially for those who will be living in a dorm or another shared space.

That’s because large groups of people in close proximity provide the ideal conditions for spreading diseases, including those that are vaccine-preventable.

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“Vaccines can keep students from contracting serious illnesses and keep them from missing classes,” says Sarah Van Orman, M.D., associate vice provost for student affairs and chief student health officer at the University of Southern California.

Keep in mind that the school’s vaccination requirements might not be enough to protect your child. Many universities—especially public institutions—follow their state’s requirements, which might not include the full list of vaccines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Barring any medical reasons not to get vaccinated, here are the four key vaccines for college.

Bacterial Meningitis

The meningococcal conjugate vaccine covers some of the most common forms of bacterial meningitis, a devastating disease that almost always requires hospitalization and can cause permanent disability or death within hours of first feeling sick. College students living in dorms are an at-risk group.

“Starting in midadolescence through college, this is an age group in which this disease is most common,” says William Schaffner, M.D., professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

Pediatricians usually give this vaccine at age 11 or 12 and a booster at 16. Those who missed either one of these can catch up before dorm move-in day.

When it comes to vaccines for college, be aware that there’s a second meningitis vaccine—the serogroup B meningococcal vaccine—that prevents another strain of the disease, known as the B strain.

Recently, about a half-dozen U.S. colleges and universities have had outbreaks of the B strain. The CDC recommends that anyone at risk of contracting the virus during an outbreak be vaccinated. 

Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis

Youngsters routinely get vaccinated against these diseases as infants and young children. And the CDC recommends that kids ages 11 and 12 receive a booster, called Tdap.

Rising college freshmen who never received the Tdap booster should get a single dose of this vaccine for college.

HPV

The sexually transmitted infection human papillomavirus is so common that almost all sexually active men and women get it at some point in their lives, though most don’t even know they are infected.

HPV infections can lead to cancer of the cervix, vulva, vagina, penis, anus, and throat. But the HPV vaccine protects against it.

“It’s our first explicitly anticancer vaccine,” Schaffner says.

Still, only about 56 percent of boys and 65 percent of girls received at least one dose of the vaccine by age 17, according to the CDC. Two doses of the HPV vaccine are recommended at age 11 or 12.

If your student didn’t have the vaccines earlier, doing so for college is a must. Note that those who started the series after age 15 need three doses rather than two.

But don’t worry if you haven’t kept to the CDC’s schedule for the HPV vaccine, says Isabel Valdez, P.A., an instructor of physician assistant candidates at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“You can pick up where you left off,” she notes.

Flu

Influenza, or the flu, can make even a normally healthy young person very sick with high fever, muscle aches, cough, and headaches. During the most recent flu season, an especially virulent strain of the virus caused strikingly high numbers of severe cases of the illness.

And catching the flu may affect students academically: Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that many students stricken by the flu missed class or did poorly on a test.

The seasonal flu vaccine helps protect against the flu—and may mean a milder case for those get sick anyway, according to the CDC.

The flu shot usually becomes available in late September or early October (but you might start seeing advertisements for it as early as August). 

If your student attends college far from home, he or she should be able to get the vaccine in the campus health center. Students may also be able to get the shot at a local pharmacy, which our experts say is just as safe as getting it at a doctor’s office.

Valdez says it’s especially important for students with asthma to get the flu shot.

Students who have asthma have a higher risk of developing upper respiratory infections that can affect their lungs,” she says.