Am I Too Sick to Work?

BIDMC Contributor

JANUARY 30, 2019


You’re sniffling, sneezing, and your nose is running like a faucet. It’s about that time of year when people everywhere are faced with the question: am I too sick to work?

“I see a lot of patients whose jobs and stress make them feel torn between staying home and going in when they’re sick,” says primary care physician and infectious disease specialist Robin Wigmore, MD. “But viral infections like the common cold and flu are contagious. It’s important to consider your coworkers health as well.”

Before packing up your tissues for the office, make an informed decision by asking yourself some simple questions:

How long have I been feeling sick?

“You are most contagious in the first 48 hours of a viral illness,” says Wigmore. “This is often even before you begin feeling symptoms.”

This means staying home at the first sign of symptoms can reduce the risk of spreading your illness, while also giving you time to rest, stay hydrated and take care of yourself.

Are my symptoms contagious?

Typically, illnesses are passed through viral particles we spread into the air by coughing or sneezing. Certain cold and flu germs can survive on surfaces such as countertops, doorknobs and phones for up to 24 hours.

“As a general rule, if you have a wet cough, a runny nose, fevers or aches, you should probably stay at home,” Wigmore says.

If you’re unable to see your primary care doctor quickly, urgent care centers can also treat the flu and other illnesses.

Here’s a closer look at symptoms:

Runny nose/cough

If it’s just a runny nose without aches or fever, then you may be experiencing allergies. A dry, “clear your throat” type of cough or tickle may also be allergies or irritation rather than a viral infection. In this case, it’s likely okay for you to go to work.

“But if your runny nose is accompanied with thick, yellow or green mucus, this is an indication that your body is fighting off an illness,” Wigmore says. “In this case, you should stay home.”

Sore throat

If your throat hurts and you have aches, including headache and/or you see white patches on your tonsils, you could have strep throat. Stay home and call your doctor, as you might need an antibiotic.


Take your temperature. If the thermometer reads over 100.4 degrees F, that’s a strong indication for infection, and maybe the flu. “You should call your doctor and stay home,” Wigmore says. “It is often best—and many times, company policy—that employees stay out of work until they are fever-free for 24 hours, especially with the flu.”

Sinus Pressure or Pain

Nasal congestion with sinus or facial pain suggests a sinus infection. Sinus infections can be viral or bacterial. “Either way, it’s best to stay home,” Wigmore says. Viral sinus infections are often contagious. If you have had symptoms longer than one week, or if you have severe facial pain, teeth/jaw pain, or fever, you may have a bacterial infection and should consult your doctor.

Remember, for those times when you’re not feeling your best, it’s important to wash your hands often or use hand sanitizer. Always sneeze or cough into your elbow or tissues instead of your hands. “It’s more than just good etiquette,” Wigmore says. “It’s good health habits.”

And if you haven’t yet gotten your flu shot, it’s not too late. Read about how the flu vaccine is the best defense against the virus.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
View All Articles