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Your phone’s alarm begins to buzz at precisely 6 a.m. With the pounding in your head and the congestion in your chest, the volume feels amplified by several levels. It’s clear that you’re sick, but what isn’t clear is if you are too sick to make it to work.

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September 27, 2021

Each cold and flu season, employees struggle with the fine line of when to call in sick. In fact, nearly three-in-four employees still go to work when they are feeling under the weather.1 We’ll help you determine the answers to some important questions, including how long you may be contagious, the best ways to prevent spreading germs while you are sick and where you can go for treatment.

Start by Considering These Four Things

Will it be difficult to complete your to-do list at work?

Illnesses often make it tough to stay focused on the task at hand. You may feel distracted, tired and simply unwell. This is known as presenteeism, which hurts both your personal productivity and the overall productivity for your employer.2

A woman not feeling well at a desk with a cup of tea, an orange and crumpled paper

Are you contagious?

Just as you wouldn’t want to be exposed to germs from a co-worker, they don’t want you getting them sick, either. If you are coughing, blowing a runny nose, vomiting, have a sore throat or have a fever above 100 degrees, there is a good chance you may be contagious. A health care provider should examine you and check your symptoms to determine if you are, in fact, contagious. 

Will resting at home help you to overcome the illness?

When your body is affected by an illness, it needs time to fight off the infection. The sooner you build your immune system back up, the sooner you’ll get back to feeling your best. Also consider your work environment. Do you work outdoors in the cold or the heat? These are factors that may make it harder for your immune system to recover when you are sick and are reasons for a much-needed day of rest at home.3

Woman looking down at her cup of tea.

Were you prescribed medications that could impair your ability to drive or complete your tasks at work?

Pain medications and certain cough and allergy medications may affect your ability to carry out normal tasks, including driving or operating machinery. Even if you take public transportation to work and don’t operate machinery, these types of medications can also hinder your ability to think clearly and sensibly. 

If you answered yes to any of these questions, seek medical attention, follow the plan you are given, then pull the covers back up and relax with a mug of warm tea.

How Long am I Contagious?

Hands on a laptop keyboard

Certain illnesses may be contagious longer than others. Your health care provider will know how long you should avoid close-contact with other people to avoid spreading the illness, as well as the best way to overcome it. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that workers who have a fever and respiratory symptoms stay at home until 24 hours after their fever ends without the use of medication.4 This is a good benchmark to use, but keep in mind that not everyone with an illness will have a fever. Talk with your health care provider or use your best judgment on when you are feeling well enough to return to work.

As an example of why you shouldn’t go to work when you are contagious, one ill employee based at a popular retail food company at a Washington D.C. store spread the norovirus to over 130 customers.3 It cost the company $1 billion over the course of five days as customers became infected. Whether you are handling food or not, being sick on the job has its costs for you and those around you.

How Can I Prevent Spreading Germs to My Family and Co-Workers?

You can help prevent spreading an illness to people nearby by disinfecting shared surfaces and washing your hands often with soap and warm water. But the best way to make sure you aren’t infecting others is to keep your distance.5 This is yet another reason to stay home from work until you are feeling better.

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Talk with your boss in advance if you are concerned about taking sick time. If you have the option to work from home, this is a great way to keep up on the looming deadlines while keeping the spread of germs to a minimum. However, don’t overwork yourself. The harder you push yourself – or the more stress you add – the longer it will take for you to get better. Try working on a few tasks for an hour, then taking a nap or relaxing away from the computer, paperwork, and telephone.

Minor symptoms, such as occasional coughing and sneezing, may be mild enough for you to have a successful day in the office. However, make sure you are mindful of possibly infecting others. The first few days of a cold are often the most contagious.4

What If I Have COVID-19?

It may be difficult to determine if you have a cold, the flu or COVID-19. However, compared to the common cold6, COVID-19 can cause more serious illnesses in some people. It can also take longer for symptoms to appear and it remains contagious for a longer period. Some of the symptoms of flu, COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses are similar and its possible to be infected with more than one of them at the same time. If are suffering from COVID-19 symptoms, stay home from work. You may also want to look up your company’s policy on COVID-19 and what your next steps will be, including getting testing and quarantining away from work.

To determine what illness you have, MedExpress offers rapid antigen* and laboratory send-out PCR COVID-19 testing. In order to ensure you receive the highest-quality care and treatment, all individuals seeking COVID-19-related care at MedExpress receive an evaluation by a health care professional.

Is There Somewhere I Can Go For Treatment?

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It’s 5 p.m. and the work day is finally coming to an end. You can feel the pressure building in your sinuses and the scratchiness of your throat, but your doctor is already gone for the day. Luckily, your neighborhood urgent care center is open later so that you can be seen right away.

At MedExpress, we treat a variety of illnesses and injuries, from the cold and flu, to strains and sprains, to work-related services. We’re open every day from 8 – 8, with no appointments necessary. You can walk in whenever it is convenient for you, and our friendly medical team will focus on getting you back to your normal routine. They’ll help you decide whether you are too sick to head back to work in the morning, and if you are too sick, our team can provide a work excuse for your employer.

In the meantime, take a much-needed day to focus on your health and strengthen your immune system. You want to contribute great ideas in the workplace, not great amounts of germs.

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*COVID-19 rapid testing results are typically delivered during the patient’s visit. Timing of results may vary due to demand.

Originally posted December 4, 2017. Updated September 27, 2021.

This content was medically reviewed by Dr. Chris Howard, DO.


References:

1 CareerBuilder: Nearly Three-in-Four Workers Go to Work When They are Sick, Finds CareerBuilder Survey. Last updated January 19, 2011. Accessed July 1, 2021.

2 WebMD: Too Sick to Work? Last updated September 3, 2010. Accessed July 1, 2021.

3 New York Post: If You Fail This Quiz You're Too Sick To Go To Work. Last updated July 27, 2017. Accessed July 1, 2021.

4 CDC: Stay Home When You Are Sick. Last updated August 31, 2020. Accessed August 26, 2021.

5 Huffington Post: It’s Cold And Flu Season: Are You Too Sick To Go To Work? Last updated November 15, 2012. Accessed July 1, 2021.

6 Mayo Clinic: COVID-19, Colds, Allergies and the Flu: What Are the Differences? Last updated May 18, 2021. Accessed August 26, 2021.

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