When to Stay Home from Work Due to Illness

Deciding whether to stay home from work or school is not always clear-cut. Most people feel under the weather once in a while, and if you don't want to miss an important meeting, presentation, or exam, it can be difficult to stay home and miss out on something you were planning for, especially if you think that you can push yourself to make it through the day. Your child may want to be able to turn in an assignment or play in a sporting event, and missing school may interfere with that.

If you are sick, pushing yourself to show up for work is not the only consideration. You also have to be mindful of the chances of getting others sick if you are contagious. Staying home can protect others, while also giving you a chance to recover. If you are on the fence about staying home or going to work, school, or another activity, there are some guidelines that can help you decide.

Woman laying in bed sick
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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides guidelines for stopping the spread of the flu, one of the most common infections that can spread at work and school. There are other temporary medical conditions that can make you sick too.

Protecting others and avoiding making yourself sicker are two important things to think about when deciding whether to call in sick.

Factors to keep in mind when deciding whether to stay home or go in include:

  • Fever: If your temperature is 100.5 degrees F or higher, then you should 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 an infectious illness, and showing up at school or work can 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. Cough drops may be helpful. Regardless of what kind of cough you have, cover your mouth with your elbow, and wash your hands regularly to avoid spreading infection.
  • 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 can soothe your sore throat, helping you get through the day.
  • 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—and stay home for an additional 24 hours once you have stopped vomiting.
  • Diarrhea: Similar to the guidelines for vomiting.
  • Pink eye: Pink eye, also referred to as viral conjunctivitis, is very contagious. Touching objects and fabric can result in spreading the infection, which is very uncomfortable.
  • Rashes: Most rashes are not contagious. A rash caused by contact dermatitis, a food allergy, poison ivy, or Lyme (a tickborne infection) is not contagious. Chickenpox, which causes a rash, is highly contagious, while some infectious rashes like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) can be deadly if you give them to someone else. See your doctor to learn whether your rash requires you to stay away from work or school.

A Word From Verywell

Your work setting can have an effect on how easily you can get other people sick. If you are a cook or if you serve food, you should stay home long enough to be sure you can't contaminate that food. If you are a healthcare worker or working around people who have a weak immune system, then you should stay home long enough to be sure you are no longer contagious.

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

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Article Sources
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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay home when you are sick. Updated August 31, 2020.

  2. Evans SS, Repasky EA, Fisher DT. Fever and the thermal regulation of immunity: the immune system feels the heatNat Rev Immunol. 2015;15(6):335-49. doi:10.1038/nri3843

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: Protect yourself and others. Updated February 11, 2019.

  4. American Osteopathic Association. Sore throat.

  5. UPMC HealthBeat. When should you call off work sick? Updated March 2017.

  6. Cleveland Clinic. Should your child stay home sick? Here's how to decide. Updated October 12, 2018.

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing norovirus. Updated June 1, 2018.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How infections spread. Updated January 7, 2016.