Should I Call in Sick Today?

Should I Call in Sick Today?

Know the signs of cold and flu—and how long you’re contagious—to decide whether to head to the office or stay at home.

Do you have symptoms of a cold or the flu? Wondering if it’s okay to go to work?

It’s important to understand some key facts about each illness to take care of yourself and to help prevent your coworkers from coming down with your bug. Here’s how.

Cold vs. flu: the key differences
A cold and the flu are both contagious respiratory infections caused by a virus. Symptoms may seem similar, but there are some nuanced differences.

Both cold and flu may start with runny or stuffy nose, watery eyes, sneezing or sore throat, although these sorts of upper respiratory signs are more closely associated with the cold. Fatigue, weakness and achiness can also crop up with both cold and flu, but general symptoms like these—along with chills, headache and fever—tend to be more common with the flu. Both conditions often involve a cough, though hacking tends to be worse with the flu.

One clear difference to be aware of is that cold symptoms overall tend to be milder than flu symptoms and colds don’t often progress to a more severe illness, while the flu can, says Robin Roach, RN, infection control manager at Blake Medical Center in Bradenton, Florida. Complications from the flu may include pneumonia or a secondary bacterial infection in the lungs.

“The other big difference between a cold and the flu is that we have vaccines to help prevent influenza, but there’s no vaccine to prevent a cold,” says Roach.

Symptoms of both cold and flu typically begin one to four days after you become infected, says Roach, but when you have influenza, the illness tends to progress rapidly.

“By day two or three, you really want to lie down and be in bed,” she explains. “Typically, you have a high fever and everything aches. You may be coughing a lot more as well.”

In short, she adds, “With a cold, you don’t feel well. With influenza, you feel very sick.”

When should I stay home?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends staying home if you’re sick, especially during flu season.

“When you have a fever, regardless of what else is going on, stay home,” Roach says. “Fever is an indication of systemic illness, not just a localized illness. A cold is localized in your nose and throat. Fever is rare in a cold.”

Another sign you should stay home: red or draining eyes. This may indicate pink eye, another potentially contagious condition in its own right. Overall, if you think your illness will prevent you from performing your work duties, stay home.

How long should I stay on the bench?
Say you came down with something on Friday evening, stayed in bed all weekend and then started to feel better by Sunday evening. You may think you’re good to go by Monday, but are you really?

Your first priority: Don’t return to work until your fever is gone for at least 24 hours. And sorry, reducing your fever using medications doesn’t count: You can still spread germs even if you’ve been diligently taking Tylenol.

In fact, according to the CDC, most adults are able to infect other people with flu from one day before symptoms develop, all the way up to seven days after they first become sick. In other words, you’re possibly contagious before you realize you’re sick, while you’re sick (obviously) and even after you think you’re in the clear.

The bottom line: When in doubt, sit it out.

What if not working is not an option?
If you absolutely, positively have to be at work, do your best to keep your distance from others, Roach says. Although this approach, called social distancing, is actually a public health strategy to prevent a community-wide influenza pandemic, the flu-avoiding principles apply at work as well.

“If you’re not feeling well at work, I recommend staying in your office, away from people as much as possible,” Roach says. “If you have to meet with others, sit at the other end of the table.”

Respiratory viruses spread through the air when you cough, sneeze or even talk. Those tiny spit particles can spread six feet or more before they eventually fall to the floor, Roach says. So, if you’re in close proximity, the particles can end up in someone else’s mouth, be inhaled or land on a surface that a coworker might touch. By staying as far away as possible and covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, you can help prevent the spread of germs.

Other social distancing steps include not shaking hands, avoiding the break room—especially during busy times—rescheduling non-essential travel and replacing in-person meetings with teleconferencing. And, of course, if you have the means, working from home is a good bet.

Preventing the flu
“The best thing to do is to prevent the flu in the first place,” says Roach. Here are some steps you can take:

Get vaccinated. The CDC recommends all adults get a yearly flu vaccine—with an emphasis on yearly. As Roach explains, the flu virus changes a little bit every year, and sometimes, it changes a lot.

At the same time, specific flu strains can persist over the years. Roach says the H1N1 virus responsible for the 2009-2010 flu pandemic is still in circulation, although a different strain of virus has been more dominant the past few years.

Practice good hand hygiene. Use soap and water and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. The soap mechanically lifts germs off your hands and then rinsing sends the germs down the drain, Roach says. “Use a paper towel to turn off the faucet so you’re not recollecting the micro-organisms you deposited when you turned it on,” she says. If you don’t have access to soap and water, and your hands are not visibly soiled, use a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol and rub your hands thoroughly until the sanitizer dries.

Follow respiratory etiquette. That means sneezing or coughing into a tissue and immediately discarding the tissue.

Clean germ-laden areas. Roach says areas where people congregate tend to be the most prone to the accumulation of germs. Germs that fly through the air and then settle on surfaces can be picked up with your hands and then deposited into your eyes, nose or mouth when you touch them. So clean and disinfect the coffee pot and break room regularly. Use bleach wipes to clean doorknobs and surfaces in public areas as well as your own workspace. Remember: you can pick up a virus from a contaminated surface for up to 48 hours.

Take care of yourself. Eat healthy food, get enough sleep and stay away from sick people, Roach says.

Sound cold and flu etiquette can help protect you from getting sick, and—in case you do succumb—reduce the changes you share your germs with others.

Medically reviewed in July 2018.

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