How to Know if You're Too Sick to Go to Work or School

Three Parts:Recognizing Symptoms of Contagious IllnessesFollowing Guidelines for Common Childhood InfectionsPreventing the Spread of Disease

Sometimes it is difficult to decide whether you should take a sick day from work or school. On one hand, you may not feel that great and you don’t want to get others around you sick, but on the other hand, you may have a lot to do. In order to decide, it is important to recognize the signs of a contagious illness and to understand the health guidelines given by government agencies and health care organizations. And finally, if you do go into work or school when you are contagious, there are some measures you can take to minimize spreading the illness to others.

Part 1
Recognizing Symptoms of Contagious Illnesses

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    Stay in bed if you have a fever. If you have a fever over 100F you should stay home from work or school and not go back until your body temperature has been normal (usually 98.6F) for 24 hours. If you need to take medication to get your temperature to be normal, that doesn’t count. You are still sick and likely infectious.[1][2]
    • A baby with a temperature of 100F or more should be taken immediately to the emergency room.
    • A high fever is likely to also be accompanied by periods of sweating and chills.
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    Stay at home if you have uncontrollable coughing. Coughing that feels like it comes from deep within your lungs could be a sign of a serious infection. Don’t go to work or school. Contact your doctor to see if you should get your cough checked out.[3]
    • Mild coughing frequently occurs due to a cold or allergies. You may also have a stuffy, drippy nose and sneezing. If you feel up to it and no other symptoms are present, you can still go about your daily routine.
    • Cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands frequently. This will help prevent you from spreading germs.
    • If you have trouble breathing during coughing fits, go to the emergency room to get medical attention.
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    Do not go into work or school if you are vomiting. Stay away from others until you are no longer vomiting and the doctor says that you are not contagious.[4] Persistent vomiting will cause dehydration and weakness.
    • Take care of yourself by drinking plenty of liquids. If you can’t keep a glass of water down, you might try sucking on ice cubes. It will enable you to take the water in more slowly and may be easier to keep down.
    • If you are unable to keep any liquid down and are at risk of becoming severely dehydrated, you may need to go to an emergency room. If necessary, they will rehydrate you with intravenous fluids. Symptoms of dehydration include weakness, headaches, infrequent urination, passing dark or cloudy urine, and crying without tears [5].
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    Take a sick day if you have diarrhea. A very loose or watery stool can often be a sign of infection. Remain near the bathroom and do not try to go to work or school until you are better.[6]
    • If the diarrhea is caused by food or medication, then it is not contagious. In this case if you are well enough to be able to go about your daily routine, you do not need to stay home.
    • During all cases of diarrhea, you are likely to be losing a lot of water. This means that it is important to replenish your liquids by drinking lots of water. Drink water even if you do not feel thirsty.
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    Stay home and consult a doctor if you have a strange rash. If you have a rash that has open wounds with fluid leaking out or is rapidly spreading, you should call your doctor. Do not go into work or school until your doctor determines that it is not contagious.[7]
    • Rashes due to allergies are not contagious. If you have the symptoms under control enough that you can think and concentrate, then you can go to work or school.
    • For mild rashes, you may be able to go to work or school if the rashes are covered. Check with your school nurse or doctor to be sure.
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    Avoid spreading colds to others. You probably don't need to stay home if you just have a cold. If you are not so sick that you need to stay home, there are still some simple precautions that you can take to protect others. You can:[8]
    • Wash your hands frequently
    • Not hug or shake hands
    • Avoid sharing drinks or food with others
    • Turn away from others when you sneeze or cough and do so into your elbow
    • Use tissues if you have a drippy nose

Part 2
Following Guidelines for Common Childhood Infections

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    Do not send your child to school if he has a disease which is preventable by a vaccine. If your child comes in contact with other children that are unvaccinated or have weakened immune systems, he may put them at risk. Wait until your doctor declares your child healthy enough to return to school. These diseases include:[9]
    • Measles. This disease has cold-like symptoms and red spots. The infected person is contagious for four days before the rash starts and the first four days of the rash’s presence. Wait until your doctor gives the ok before sending your child back to school.[10]
    • Mumps. It is characterized by flu-like symptoms and swollen salivary glands.[11] Follow the instructions from your doctor and school officials to determine how long to keep your child home.
    • Rubella. This disease has flu-like symptoms and a pink rash. It can cause birth defects in unborn babies if the mother catches it.[12] Ask your doctor and the school nurse when your child can return to school.
    • Pertussis (whooping cough). This illness has flu- and cold-like symptoms and severe coughing which can make it difficult to breathe. Ask your doctor and the school nurse how long your child will be infectious.[13]
    • Chicken pox. This disease has flu-like symptoms and a rash of fluid-filled red bumps. An infected person is contagious for two days before the rash starts and then until all the spots have scabbed over. Ask your doctor when it’s ok to send your child back to school.[14]
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    Keep your child at home if he has pink eye. Pink eye, also called conjunctivitis, is an infection where the eye becomes red and leaks sticky yellowish-greenish goo.[15]
    • Because the eye maybe itchy, children often rub their eyes, and then touch other children or shared toys, making it easily contagious.
    • Once your child has begun treatment, he may be able to go back to school once your doctor says he is unlikely to be infectious.
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    Have your child stay at home for a day after a diagnosis of impetigo. However, once your child is receiving treatment under a doctor’s supervision, it should be ok for your child to return to school, unless your doctor advises against it.[16]
    • Impetigo is an infection in which pustules form. The pustules may seep fluid and crust over. These spots must be covered when your child goes to school.
    • Impetigo can be caused by streptococci, staphylococcus, and MRSA infections.
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    Let your child stay home if he has strep throat. This infection is characterized by a sore throat. Bring your child to the doctor because he may need antibiotics.[17]
    • Your child may feel well enough to go back to school after being on antibiotics for 24 hours.
    • Check with your doctor to see what he or she recommends.
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    Keep your child out of school for a week if he has hepatitis A. This is a very contagious liver infection which causes nausea, vomiting, pain near the liver, joint pain, dark urine, clay-colored stool, and yellow skin and eyes. If you think your child has hepatitis A, bring him to the doctor immediately.[18]
    • If it takes longer than a week for your child to feel well enough to go back, you may need to keep him home for longer.[19]
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    Consult a doctor if your child has an earache or fluid draining from the ear. If the pain comes from an infection, your child may need antibiotics.[20]
    • Chances are your child will not be able to concentrate or learn well until his ears no longer hurt. Let him stay home until he feels better.
    • Ear pain can be caused by bacterial or viral infections. If left untreated, ear infections can lead to hearing loss.[21][22]
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    Do send your child to school once treatment has begun for many other infections. Consult with your child’s doctor and school nurse. It may be possible for your child to attend school or daycare, if your child has one of the following common infections:[23][24]
    • Scabies. This is a caused by a mite that burrows in the skin and lays eggs. It causes red bumps and tracks under the skin and is intensely itchy and contagious. See your doctor for prescription medications which will get rid of the infection.[25]
    • Lice. Lice are insects that live on human hair and lay their eggs in it. They cause itching, but do not carry dangerous diseases. The sticky eggs must be carefully removed with a fine-tooth comb. If you need to, you can keep your child home for a day or two to give you time to provide treatment. Medicated shampoos are also available over-the-counter and by prescription.[26]
    • Ringworm. Ringworm is a fungal infection that causes a rash with a characteristic red ring. Take your child to the doctor to see if he needs anti-fungal medications. The infected area must remain covered when he goes to school.[27]
    • Fifth’s Disease. This illness causes flu-like symptoms and at towards the end, a red rash that frequently occurs on the face and elsewhere on the body. Because of the red rash that appears on the cheeks, this disease is also called slapped-cheek disease. Once the rash develops, your child is not likely to be contagious. Your child should see a doctor if he has sickle cell anemia or a weakened immune system. It is also dangerous for unborn babies when they are exposed.[28][29]
    • Hand, foot, and mouth disease. This disease has painful blisters in the mouth and a red rash on the hands and feet. It may also have a fever and sore throat. If the child is drooling and has mouth sores, then he should stay home.[30][31]

Part 3
Preventing the Spread of Disease

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    Avoid getting too close to people when you are sick. If you must go to work or school when you are sick, you can still minimize the chances that you will infect others by keeping a distance. You can:[32]
    • Avoid giving hugs. If necessary, you can explain to people that you feel a little unwell and don’t want to infect them. Chances are they will agree that it is best if you stay away.
    • Don’t lean into people when talking or looking over their shoulder at a computer screen.
    • Wear a face mask, to prevent accidentally breathing on others.[33]
    • Minimize the amount of handshaking you do.
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    Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. This will prevent you from spraying little droplets with germs on others and on common surfaces that people touch.[34]
    • Cover your mouth with a tissue and throw it away afterwards. Even though it may look clean, you have just sprayed germs all over it.
    • If you do not have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow, not your hands. While you are spreading germs to your clothes, your elbow is much less likely to come in contact with other people and communal surfaces than your hands.
    • If you cough or sneeze uncontrollably, wear a face mask.
    • Wipe down communal surfaces that you have touched with disinfectant wipes. This includes tables, desks, computer keyboards, and doorknobs.
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    Wash your hands often and thoroughly. Do this before preparing food, after using the bathroom, after blowing your nose, after sneezing, after coughing, and before caring for or touching others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend following these steps:[35]
    • Rinse your hands under running water. Turn off the facet to conserve water.
    • Lather your hands with soap. You should have a soapy film on everywhere on your hands including the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your fingernails.
    • Rub your hands together vigorously for at least 20 seconds.
    • Rinse off all the soap and germs with clean water.
    • Air dry or use a clean towel to dry your hands. Using a dirty towel defeats the purpose of washing your hands!
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    Go to the doctor if there are signs of a serious infection or complications. If you or your child have any of these symptoms, see a doctor:[36]
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Fast breathing
    • A bluish tinge to the skin
    • Dehydration
    • Unresponsiveness or unable to wake up
    • Extreme irritability
    • Fever. For infants and young children, check with your doctor even for low fevers of 100 F, or for a newborn that has a lower than normal temperature.[37][38]
    • Fever for more than 3 days[39]
    • Fever with a rash
    • Flu-like symptoms that go away, then come back with a fever and bad cough
    • Dehydration
    • Pain in the abdomen or chest
    • Pressure in the abdomen or chest
    • Dizziness
    • Confusion
    • Severe vomiting
    • Listlessness
    • Severe head or throat pain


  • If your child is sick, consult your pediatrician for further guidance.
  • Follow your doctor's recommendations when taking medications.
  • Consult with your doctor before taking any medications or home remedies if you are pregnant or when you are treating a child.
  • If you are already on other medications, talk to your doctor before adding medications, even over-the-counter medications or home remedies, because they could interact.
  • If you come into contact with vulnerable populations at work or school, it is even more important that you stay home when sick. Vulnerable populations include children, the elderly, and people with weakened immune systems or other health problems.

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Categories: Respiratory Health