Work: Call in Sick or Go to Work? (cont.)

"Colds are most contagious early on - even before you are symptomatic," says Bagner, so if you recognize the symptoms early enough, stay home for a day or two and see if you improve. You should also stay home if you are taking cold medicines that make you so drowsy that you are likely to make serious, even dangerous errors, at work.

The best thing you can do to keep from spreading the disease to others, at home or at work, is wash your hands as well as objects that you share with others.

"I read one study that said the dirtiest thing in a hotel room is the remote control - the cleaning staff cleans the bathroom but not the remote control," says Susan Kahn, MD and Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics with a practice in Pelham ,NY.

"Wash your hands and also elevator buttons, light switches, computer keyboards, the handle of the coffee pot, to keep from spreading your illness to others," Kahn says.

Hand sanitizers couldn't hurt either, says Bagner: "They really work -- they contain antiseptics and alcohol that kill the germs."

Flu symptoms tend to be more severe than cold symptoms and usually come on fast, within several hours. In addition to the aches common to the cold, you may have a fever, chills, a dry cough, and extreme tiredness.

"This is the most important time to stay home as you can get dehydrated from the fever," says Bagner. And you are even more contagious than cold carriers.

Coughing alone doesn't mean you should stay home, Bagner says, but you should see a physician if it lasts more than a couple of days.

"It could be a sign of anything from postnasal drip from a cold or allergies, to undiagnosed asthma, acid reflux or heartburn - and on the more serious side, emphysema or lung cancer," says Bagner. "If you are also experiencing shortness of breath, and green mucous, stay home until you get a doctor's appointment," advises Bagner. It could be more than a lingering cold - perhaps bronchitis or pneumonia.

A fever plus a sore throat and white patches on your tonsils may indicate a strep throat. This is highly contagious. So stay out of work and get to the doctor for a strep test.

Back Pain

Going to work could merely prolong the pain, especially if you have a job that requires either physical exertion or the opposite -- prolonged sitting or standing. "You may not think of a desk job as strenuous, but it's worse for your back sometimes than a physical job," Bagner says.

Stay home for a day or two - but don't stay in bed. "We no longer recommend bed rest for backaches," Bagner says. "You are better off staying at home and doing some normal activities but don't sit at the computer for long and don't do exercise or heavy lifting."

Headaches and Migraines

If your headache is combined with other cold and flu symptoms, you're contagious and should stay home. If it's a migraine, where the extreme pain and sensitivity to light and noise make it hard to get any work done, you probably shouldn't bother heading in to work either.

"If it's a migraine, lying in a cool, dark, quiet area, with a cool compress over the forehead can help," Bagner says. There is also a wide array of medications and treatments that can help - so see a doctor.


If you have an earache with no other symptoms - and the pain is intense - see a physician. "Sometimes pain in the ear is not really from the ear - it could be a throat infection or sinus pain or inflammation of the jaw," Bagner says, and antibiotics may be necessary.

If the earache is mild and accompanies other cold symptoms, you should probably stay home for the first day to see if the earache goes away - and to keep from spreading the cold to others, says Bagner.

Ear infections are not contagious but the pain can become intense quickly -- and you won't be much good on the job.


If your eyes are red, and your eyelashes feel sticky and matted, think pinkeye. It can be viral or bacterial.

"It's no more contagious than a cold, just more obvious," says Kahn. "Go see a doctor -- if antibiotic drops are called for, you will no longer be contagious after 24-to-48 hours."

But until then, she says, it is wise, not to go to work, wash your hands frequently, and don't rub your eyes or you might spread it from one eye to the other.


It's OK to go to work if you can sit comfortably all day. But if you have to stand or move in a way that puts pressure on the injured limb, the resulting swelling and discomfort could retard the healing process - and delay your return to productivity and good health. Ice packs and anti-inflammatory pain relievers can help reduce swelling and inflammation.

Poison Ivy

Poison ivy can be uncomfortable and unsightly - but if you're looking for an excuse to stay home, keep looking - you are not contagious. "The rash is an allergic reaction to the oils in the plant - the reaction usually occurs three to four days after exposure. By that time the oil from the original poison ivy is not present [as long as you have washed the clothes you were wearing several times], so you can't spread it to others or spread it further on yourself," says Bagner.

SOURCES: Michael Bagner, MD, attending physician, St. Luke's/Roosevelt Hospital; medical director, Roosevelt Hospital Doctors Offices, New York. Paula H. Harvey, human resources consultant, K & P Consulting; adjunct professor, Winthrop University, Rock Hill, S.C. Susan Kahn, MD, FAAP, Pelham, N.Y. Society for Human Resource Management, 2006 study. WebMD Feature: "Call in Sick or Go to Work? Here's Some Advice."

Reviewed on October 09, 2007

Last Editorial Review: 4/17/2008

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