How to Decide If You Should Call in Sick

Symptoms That May Warrant Staying Home

In This Article

No matter how bad you are feeling, deciding whether or not you should call in sick may be challenging. You may be needed at work, yet you might be unfocussed, unproductive, or disruptive to your coworkers. You may be contagious, but out of paid sick time. Looking at your situation with your symptoms in mind may help you decide the right course of action for you and those around you.

Symptom/Issue Cause Contagious?
Fever Very likely
Flu Yes
Vomiting or diarrhea Possible
Cough Possible
Sore throat Possible
Runny nose Possible
Headache Possible
Rash Possible
Exhaustion Possible

Fever

If you have a fever, you are very likely to have a contagious illness. If your temperature is anything higher than 100 degrees F, you shouldn’t go to work and expose everyone else to your illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends staying home for at least 24 hours after a fever this high is gone. You will know it is truly gone when you take your temperature and get a lower reading after having discontinued fever-reducing medicines such as aspirin, Tylenol (acetaminophen), or Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen).

Influenza Symptoms

The CDC also recommends staying home if you have other symptoms that point towards influenza or you have a confirmed case of the flu.

While most people with influenza have a fever, some do not. The other symptoms include:

  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle or body aches
  • Headache
  • Fatigue

If you have household members or coworkers who have confirmed cases of the flu and you are feeling these symptoms, it is quite likely they are due to influenza.

The flu is highly contagious and can have dangerous complications for vulnerable populations such as babies, older adults, and those with cancer or other conditions that weaken the immune system. Staying home will help protect these people, especially if your job brings you into contact with the public or you take public transportation to work.

The CDC recommends staying home for at least four to five days after flu symptoms have started. If you are at work and develop flu symptoms, separate yourself from other workers and the public, and go home as soon as possible. You are most contagious during the first three days of the flu.

Vomiting or Diarrhea

Vomiting and diarrhea can be signs of contagious illness or may simply be too disruptive to get any useful work done. You might have stomach flu such as that caused by the highly-contagious norovirus. Or, it might be due to non-contagious illness such as food poisoning, pregnancy morning sickness, a medication side effect, a hangover, or a chronic condition like inflammatory bowel disease.

Whether contagious or not, either of these symptoms will make you less present at work and put you at risk of complications such as dehydration. It is best to stay home until you are clear of nausea and vomiting and your stools have firmed up.

Cough

If you have a cold or the flu and have moist and frequent coughing, you are still contagious and the cough will spread the virus to those around you. In this case, it is best to stay home until the cough calms down or does not bring up phlegm. Frequent, deep coughing is disruptive to the work environment.

Sore Throat

A sore throat is often a sign of contagious illness, including colds, strep throat, and influenza. In these cases, you should stay home from work.

However, if you often experience a sore throat due to allergies, acid reflux, or dry air, or if you overused your voice the prior day, there is no need to call in sick. One caveat: If you need to talk as part of your job and the sore throat has made it difficult to do so, you may want to take a day and rest.

Runny Nose

If you have other symptoms of a cold or the flu and your nose is running so that you need to blow or wipe it frequently, you are contagious. The nasal secretions will contain the virus, and it will be difficult to prevent spreading it in your work environment.

The CDC advises staying home from work or school while you have symptoms of a cold, such as a runny nose.

However, many people have a runny nose (rhinorrhea) due to allergies. If you have a runny nose, nasal congestion, and sneezing due to allergies, you are not contagious and don't need to stay home to protect others. Evaluate whether you feel well enough to be productive at work before calling in sick.

Headache

A headache may be a symptom of influenza or another contagious illness that warrants staying home from work, but there are many non-contagious causes as well.

A nagging or severe headache can keep you from effectively doing your job and it can be a good reason to call in sick. Evaluate how likely it is to affect your performance at work to make the decision as to whether or not to call in sick.

Rash

If you have a rash accompanied by a fever or your medical provider has diagnosed your rash as contagious, you should stay home.

There are many non-contagious causes of rashes, and even though you can't spread it to others, you might be miserable from the symptoms (especially itchiness). It's also possible that your appearance might cause alarm if you deal with the public. In these cases, you will need to make a personal call as to what you are able to manage.

Exhaustion

Extreme fatigue can be the sign of a contagious illness, such as influenza. It can also accompany chronic disease, cancer, cancer treatment, heart disease, mental health conditions, sleep disorders, or pregnancy.

Exhaustion can make you unproductive at work and might lead to errors that can be critical in some occupations, either to the job itself or your and your team's safety. You will have to determine whether it warrants calling in sick.

A Word From Verywell

If you work around or will be exposed to infants, older adults. or people with compromised immune systems, you should not go to work with any type of illness that might be contagious. If your symptoms are not due to a contagious illness, you will have to consider whether you can be safe and useful at work, and whether your symptoms will be disruptive to the work environment.

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay Home When You Are Sick. Updated April 9, 2019.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Flu Symptoms & Complications. Updated September 18, 2019.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others. Updated February 11, 2019.