Knowing When to Stay Home Sick: Three Questions to Ask

Recognizing a contagious illness can help prevent outbreaks

A woman sleeping on a couch.

Recognizing a contagious illness can help prevent outbreaks

Uh-oh. You woke up and something’s off. Your throat is sore and you’ve got a rattling cough. Or maybe gastrointestinal symptoms, like nausea or diarrhea. You’re feeling distinctly under the weather.

But there’s work to do, or classes to attend, or errands to run or appointments to keep. So, when should you tough it out and when should you give in and just surrender to the sickbed?

When to stay home from work, school

When it comes to contagious diseases, remember that just one person’s decision to go out could potentially infect hundreds, even thousands more. Recognizing “when to stay home sick” warning signs can help make the whole community safer.

“It’s not always a black-and-white issue when you’re considering when to stay home if you’re not feeling well,” says Mark Shalauta, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo. “If you can get into your doctor’s office to get his or her advice, that’s best — not just for yourself, but for your family and co-workers or classmates.”

But if you can’t get in, try to use these guidelines to help you decide whether you should take a day or two at home to recover. Ask yourself these three questions:

1. Are you contagious?

If you have a cough accompanied by a fever higher than 100.3 degrees Fahrenheit, chills and/or body aches, it’s likely you may be contagious as well and should stay home. There are many illnesses that can exhibit such symptoms, including the flu.

You may not know you’re contagious at first. The flu can cause you to be highly contagious one day before symptoms develop and up to seven days after becoming ill. Likewise, if your symptoms are digestive (nausea, vomiting and/or diarrhea), stay home until you’re feeling better.

But if you have a simple dry cough with no fever, it’s probably safe to go to work, school or other public places.

2. Are you doing more harm to yourself?

People who try to approach every single illness with a stoic “tough it out” mindset — going to the office no matter what — may think they’re doing a responsible thing, but in the long run, they may take longer to get better. “Not taking time off when you’re legitimately sick will often result in a more severe and longer illness, which ultimately makes you far less productive,” says Dr. Shalauta.

3. Can you be productive?

In the past decade, researchers in the field of occupational health have recognized a syndrome called “presenteeism” (as opposed to absenteeism), in which workers report to work but are either physically, mentally or emotionally unable to do their jobs effectively or responsibly. If you suspect you will be able to be physically present at your workplace, but unable to focus or complete tasks accurately or safely, consider staying home.

Practice good hygiene when you return

Even after recovering from a contagious illness, be sure to practice good hygiene. “If you’re going into work feeling a bit off, be considerate,” says Dr. Shalauta. “Wash your hands frequently.” Also, use disinfectant wipes to clean all the surfaces you know you touched before you became ill, including telephones, keyboards, mice, drawer handles and chair arms.

If you must cough or sneeze, do so into your sleeve or a disposable tissue. And be sure to go through your home with the same attention to germ-killing detail, to prevent a recurrence.

Keep track of flu activity near you

Every year, all year long, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides weekly flu activity, including outbreaks, in its weekly FluView report. If you’re traveling or just want to limit your public exposure during peak flu season, you can track national flu patterns through the FluView site. The CDC also tracks other highly contagious illness outbreaks — such as norovirus and pertussis.

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