When to Stay Home If You're Sick

Guidelines for Calling in Sick From Work or School

It’s not always easy to decide if you should stay home from work or school when you aren’t feeling well. If you’re a caregiver, it can be hard to decide whether to send your child to school or daycare, especially if they need to take a test or play a sport that day.

If you get sick on an important day, you might be tempted to just “tough it out.” Pushing through your symptoms when you’re sick makes it harder for your body to get better, but that’s not the only thing you need to think about. You also need to remember that when you are around others when you’re ill, you could get someone else sick.

Staying home can protect others, while also giving you a chance to recover. This article will go over some guidelines to help you decide if you should call out from work when you’re feeling sick.

Woman laying in bed sick

Terry Doyle / Getty Images

Guidelines for Calling In Sick

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidelines for stopping the spread of infectious diseases.

A common illness that you’re probably familiar with is influenza (the flu). The flu is caused by a virus that spreads easily.

There are also many other contagious illnesses that can make you sick and that you, in turn, can spread to others.

Knowing the most common signs and symptoms of an infection that can be spread to other people will help you decide if you should call out sick.

Think of Yourself—and Others

Staying home when you’re sick is important because your body needs to rest. It’s also important that you are not around other people while you are able to spread the infection, as you could get them sick, too.


A fever is one of the clearest signs that you have an infection. Stay home if you have a fever of 100 F or higher.

If you go to school or work with a fever that’s caused by an infectious illness, you can easily pass on whatever you’ve got to others.

To prevent this from happening, don’t go back to your office or school until 24 hours after your fever goes away without the use of fever-reducing medication like Tylenol or Advil.


Stay home if you have a cough that brings up mucus (productive cough). A cough can be caused by a number of respiratory infections, some of which are very easy to spread to other people.

No matter where you are, always cough into the crook of your elbow rather than coughing into your hand. This helps prevent the infectious particles from being spread into the air or on the things that you touch.

Washing your hands regularly is also critical to preventing the spread of infection. Having clean hands helps keep you from getting infectious particles to surfaces that other people will touch.

Sore Throat

Some causes of a sore throat are not illnesses you can spread to others. In some cases, you’ll know the cause of a sore throat right away—for example, because you were cheering at a sporting event the night before.

However, a sore throat can also be a symptom of many contagious illnesses, like strep throat. It might come on gradually or suddenly, depending on what is causing it.

If it hurts to swallow, breathe, or talk, your safest bet is to stay home. You’ll also want to call your provider to see if you need to be tested for an infection that needs to be treated.

Should You Stay Home With Laryngitis?

It depends. Not all illnesses that inflame the voice box, causing you to be hoarse or “lose your voice,” are contagious. If you only have laryngitis, you can likely be out and about without concern of getting others sick (just try to rest your voice). If you also have symptoms of a respiratory infection, however, you may be contagious and should stay home.

Runny Nose

If your nose is only a little stuffed up and you aren’t having trouble breathing, the cause of your runny nose could be something you can’t spread to others, like seasonal allergies.

However, if you’re constantly blowing your nose, it’s more likely you’ve caught something. In this case, it’s best to take a sick day.

If you do have to blow your nose while you’re out, use a tissue that you can throw away, then wash your hands after.


On its own, an earache may not be something you could spread to others. For example, ear pain can be caused by something as simple as having a lot of ear wax.

However, if you have a job like a bus driver, pilot, or school crossing guard, having an earache can be a problem even if it’s not caused by something you can spread. Some ear problems can affect your balance and could make it unsafe for you to go to work.

If you have an earache as well as other cold or flu symptoms, it’s more likely that you could make others sick. If that’s the case, call out sick.

Vomiting and Diarrhea

Gastrointestinal symptoms can be caused by illnesses that you can’t spread to other people, like inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) or food allergies and intolerances.

However, there are also gastrointestinal illnesses that are very easy to spread to other people, like the “stomach flu.”

To be on the safe side, stay home when you’re vomiting and for 24 hours after the last time that you vomited and/or had diarrhea.

Pink Eye

Viral conjunctivitis, or pink eye, is a very contagious infection of your eyes. You can spread it to other people just by touching objects or even fabric.

If your child has pink eye, they’ll need to stay home from school or daycare. If you catch it from them, you’ll need to call out from work.


Many rashes like dermatitis, allergies, and poison ivy are not contagious. However, some, like the one caused by chickenpox, are easy to spread.

There are also some very serious rashes. While they’re less common, they’re important to know about.

For example, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a serious bacterial infection that can cause a rash.

The virus has gotten better at surviving treatment with antibiotics (antibiotic resistance). In some cases, people can die from MRSA infections.

To find out of a rash is contagious or not, you’ll need to see your provider. If it is, you’ll have to stay home from work until it’s been treated.

What About COVID-19?

If you have signs and symptoms of COVID-19, you will need to limit your contact with other people—even the people you live with. If you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID but you don’t feel sick, you still might have to stay away from other people.

COVID Testing

Getting tested for COVID can help you figure out how long you will need to keep your distance from other people, which includes staying home from work.

COVID Symptoms

Many of the signs and symptoms of COVID—like a fever, cough, and sore throat—have already been mentioned. However, there are also a few others to keep in mind:

Quarantine vs. Isolating

If you’ve been around someone who is sick with COVID, you may have caught the virus even if you don’t feel sick.

That’s why it’s important that you know and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) guidelines for quarantining and isolating.

When to quarantine:

  • If you are not vaccinated against COVID, you are exposed to someone with COVID, and you do not feel sick, you will need to quarantine for at least five days.
  • If you are vaccinated, you don’t need to quarantine unless you feel sick.

When to isolate:

If you have symptoms and have tested positive for COVID, you’ll need to isolate yourself from others for at least five days, whether you are vaccinated or not.

Work Location and Type

The type of work you do and where you work can also affect how easily you could spread an illness to other people.

For example, if you’re a cook or food server, you should stay home until there is no longer any risk that you could contaminate the food.

If you are a healthcare worker or you work around people who have a weak immune system, you should stay home long enough to be sure you are no longer contagious.

Office space that’s separated from others can provide some protection, but few of us are completely isolated at work.

You can spread germs to other people in shared spaces even if you don’t see them face to face.

For example, picking up the office coffee pot, turning on the sink in the bathroom, or using the copy machine could all be opportunities to spread an infection.

How to Call In Sick

The exact process for calling in sick may vary from job to job. Consider following these steps:

  1. Choose the right person (or people) to inform. This may be your boss or manager, and may also include any co-workers who will be affected by your absence.
  2. Choose the appropriate form of communication. Calling is usually better than texting or emailing, as it shows that you are sincere and avoids any delays in communication.
  3. Act quickly. Provide as much notice as possible that you won’t be making it in.
  4. Be honest and brief. Don’t overdramatize your symptoms. It’s better to give less details about your illness than more. If your boss requests more details, keep your answers short and to the point.
  5. If there is a meeting you are missing, a deadline you won’t make, or any other duty that you will be missing, let your team know so that nobody falls behind.
  6. Update your team as needed. Tell your supervisor if you need more than one sick day. If your employer requires documentation, make sure you get a note from your doctor.

How Do I Call In Sick for Mental Health?

Regardless of why you need a sick day, it’s best to keep your reasons brief and even somewhat vague. You don’t need to tell your boss all about your symptoms. Simply inform them that you are not feeling well and need some time to recover so that you can perform at your best.


If you think you should “tough it out” and go to work or school when you’re sick, keep in mind that your well-being isn’t the only concern. If you leave home when you’re sick, you could get other people sick, too.

Certain symptoms, like a fever, a sore throat; vomiting and diarrhea, or a contagious rash are good signs that you need to take a sick day.

If you work a job where you’re around people with weak immune systems or you cook or serve food, it’s even more important that you err on the side of caution and call out sick if you think you could make others ill.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How can I stop feeling guilty about calling in sick?

    Remember that everyone needs a sick day eventually. Though someone may be picking up the work you’re not able to do, you might find yourself doing the same for them one day. And if you’re contagious, staying home means you are sparing others from catching what you have.

  • Is texting in sick ever acceptable?

    If you regularly communicate with your manager over text, it may be OK. But a call is generally preferable. An e-mail allows for a more formal record, but it might not always be read by your employer in a timely manner.

  • Can my boss ask me for a doctor's note if I'm out sick?

    Yes, but laws in your area may only allow this if you have been absent for a certain number of days. Check your company’s sick policy. The note only needs to contain the date you were seen, when you can return to work, and if there are any restrictions in what you can do.

  • Can you be fired for calling in sick?

    At-will employees can be fired for any reason, but some states and work arrangements have certain protections in place to prevent termination for being out sick. Speak to your state’s department of labor if this is a concern for you.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Healthy habits to help protect against flu.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Stay home when you are sick.

  3. 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

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common colds: protect yourself and others.

  5. American Osteopathic Association. Sore throat.

  6. UPMC HealthBeat. When should you call off work sick?

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing norovirus.

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How infections spread.

By Trisha Torrey
 Trisha Torrey is a patient empowerment and advocacy consultant. She has written several books about patient advocacy and how to best navigate the healthcare system.