When to Stay Home from Work Due to Illness

Sick in bed
If your temperature is 100.5 degrees F or higher you should not go to work. Terry Doyle/Taxi/Getty Images

How do you know when your symptoms suggest it's time for you or your children to stay home from work or school? Even if you know it's imperative you show up, even if you feel like you could drag yourself there despite feeling as lousy as you do, you still need to be mindful that you could be contagious and might pass on whatever ails you to coworkers or classmates.

Here are some guidelines for deciding whether to call in sick:

  • Fever: If your temperature is 100.5 degrees F or higher, then stay home. Don't return to your office or school until 24 hours after your fever has subsided. A fever is one of clearest signs of a contagious illness, and showing up at school or work will too easily result in passing on whatever you've got to others.
  • Cough: If your cough brings up mucus or phlegm-type secretions, then stay home. A dry cough is OK for the office (even though it's probably very annoying for your co-workers to listen to.) Regardless of what kind of cough you have, cover your mouth with your elbow, and keep your hands washed.
  • Sore throat: If it hurts to swallow, breathe or speak, then stay home. If your voice is raspy or your throat is only slightly sore, then it's OK to show up at work or school. Cough drops may be helpful.
  • Runny nose: If you must constantly blow your nose to keep it clear, then stay home. If it's only slightly stuffy, and you aren't having trouble breathing, then it's probably all right to go to work or school. Keep your hands washed as you continue to blow your nose.
  • Earache: By itself, an earache won't pose a hazard to others unless you work in a job that requires balance (such as being a bus driver, a pilot or a school crossing guard.) But if an earache is accompanied by other symptoms of contagion, you'll need to stay home.
  • Vomiting: Stay home, of course. And stay home for an additional 24 hours once you have stopped vomiting.
  • Diarrhea: Similar to the guidelines for vomiting.
  • Rashes: Contagious rashes like pink eye require keeping your distance from others. Some rashes, like MRSA, can even be deadly if you give them to someone else. On the other hand, a rash from Lyme or another tickborne infection is not contagious. See your doctor to learn whether your rash requires you stay away from work or school.

Use Common Sense

If you work in an office where you are separated from others, that will provide some protection. But few of us are completely isolated. If you harbor germs that create illness, and you touch the handle on the coffee pot, or the fixtures in the bathroom, or open the copy machine, or touch other surfaces your coworkers or classmates touch, then you'll pass on those germs even if you don't see other people during your day.

If you are a cook or spend time around food others will eat, you will want to consider staying home long enough to be sure you can't contaminate that food.

If you are a healthcare worker or spend time around others who have weakened immune systems (for example, in a nursing home), then you should stay home long enough to be sure you are no longer contagious. The American Academy of Family Physicians has even developed guidelines for doctors to know when to call in sick.

The Centers for Disease Control provides guidelines for stopping the spread of germs in schools and the workplace.

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