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Too sick to work?

An illustration of a young woman on a couch blowing her nose and holding a hot drink.

Sometimes it's best to err on the side of caution.

It isn't always easy to know when to stay home sick from work. And the reasons to show up can be persuasive: You may have important deadlines to meet. You may want to be there for your co-workers. Or if you don't have paid leave, you may not feel you can afford the time off.

But if you go to work sick, you may do more harm than good. For example, if you work closely with others, you could spread your illness and cause them to miss work later. And even if you work from home, you may not be able to do your best work when you feel your worst.

To work or not to work?

Sometimes it's best to take one for the team and call in sick. That's a good idea if you:

  • Are too sick to be productive.
  • Are contagious.
  • Have a sudden onset of symptoms like a fever with a cough or sore throat.

Colds, the flu and the coronavirus are easily passed from person to person by coughing and sneezing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And you may be able to infect co-workers for days before and after you know you are sick.

If you're unsure if you should work, call your doctor and ask what's best. It's usually safest to err on the side of caution. With a fever, you should stay home until you haven't had a fever for 24 hours without the use of fever-reducing medicine. With some illnesses, like COVID-19, you may need to stay home longer.

Keep in mind: Federal laws guarantee up to 12 weeks of unpaid sick leave for certain employees when they or a family member need to stay home for medical reasons. Some states also guarantee paid sick leave, but the laws differ from state to state. Try to find out what your rights are before you are sick.

Avoiding illness in the workplace

Along with staying home when you're sick, CDC says you can help prevent the spread of illness in your workplace if you:

  • Get a flu shot every year and a COVID-19 vaccine as soon as you're eligible.
  • Wear a face mask and socially distance at work during the pandemic, unless you're fully vaccinated.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Germs may be spread when you touch something that is contaminated with germs and then touch your face.
  • Use a disinfectant to clean your desk, computer, telephone and other hard surfaces in your workplace.
  • Practice good health habits. Get plenty of sleep, be active, manage your stress, drink plenty of fluids and eat a healthy diet.

For more tips on coping with common illnesses, visit the Colds, Flu and Coronavirus health topic centers.

Reviewed 11/24/2020

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