Last Modified: Katy Konkelby
7 Symptoms to Consider When Calling Out of Work
You wake up one morning with a little tickle in the back of your throat. The headache you’ve been treating all night with aspirin just won’t go away. Despite the thermostat being set at a comfortable 68° F, you’re feeling hot and sweaty. Are you sick enough to stay home from work?
When you work in the healthcare industry, deciding if you are too sick to go into work can be a tough decision. You’ve experienced firsthand how stressful things can be when your floor or unit is short staffed. You also know that your patients are counting on you to provide an exceptional level of care. And let’s not forget, no one wants to be patient zero, the one who shares the “sickness” with everyone else.
Taking the time to carefully evaluate your symptoms and the likelihood that you are contagious is the best way to determine if you are sick enough to stay home. In consultation with your doctor, we recommend using the following symptoms as a guide:
Symptoms that Indicate You’re Sick Enough to Stay Home
Influenza is highly contagious and can be life threatening for vulnerable populations (i.e. infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems). If you are experiencing the symptoms of the flu (fever, chills, muscle aches, cough, congestion, runny nose, headache and/or fatigue) or have tested positive for the flu, you are sick enough to stay home. Remember, you are most contagious during the first three days of the flu. So even if you’re only feeling slightly sick and you think you can power through, it’s best to stay home, rest and hydrate. Your body will heal faster, and your colleagues will thank you for not sharing your germs.
A fever is our body’s way of telling us that we likely have a contagious illness. That being said, don’t be alarmed by minor fluctuations in your daily temperature. Anything between 95°F – 99.5°F is considered within the normal range. However, once your temperature is higher than 100°F, you are considered sick enough to stay home. Just like with influenza, be sure to give your body plenty of rest and hydration. You will know you are safe to return to work when you are fever free for 24 hours without the use of medications that reduce fevers (i.e. aspirin, Tylenol, ibuprofen).
A persistent cough that produces phlegm is a good indication that you are battling a cold or the flu. Because “wet coughs” are typically associated with viruses, it is highly advisable that you stay home from work and rest when you have one. Over-the-counter cough syrups, warm fluids (i.e. soups, cocoa, tea) and cough drops are all great remedies that can be used to help suppress or relieve your symptoms. You will know that you are safe to return to work when the cough stops completely or no longer produces phlegm.
“Dry coughs,” on the other hand, are generally temporary and are usually associated with environmental irritants and conditions like allergies, asthma and GERD. If you know that your dry cough is the result of a non-contagious illness, you are safe to go to work. However, still be sure to cough into your elbow and wash your hands frequently throughout the day.
If you experience a cough (wet or dry) that is persistent or produces blood, contact your doctor.
A sore throat can be a sign that you are dealing with a contagious illness. For instance, the common cold, influenza and strep throat are generally accompanied by a sore throat and are all highly contagious illnesses. If your sore throat is caused by a contagious condition, you are sick enough to stay home. However, if your sore throat has been caused by dry air, allergies, overuse of you voice, acid reflux, etc., you are not contagious, and it is safe for you to go to work. In either instance, whether you are contagious or not, try to rest your voice as much as possible and keep your throat lubricated with liquids and cough drops to help speed up your recovery.
Deciding if your runny nose is an indication of a contagious condition can be especially tricky since exposure to allergens and other environmental irritants can send you running for a box of Kleenex. Generally speaking, a runny nose is a symptom of a contagious illness when it is accompanied by other conditions (fever, sore, throat, cough, etc.). If you are experiencing a runny nose in conjunction with other cold- or flu-like-symptoms, you are sick enough to stay home. If your runny nose is just the result of seasonal allergies, you are not contagious, and it is safe for you to go to work. Just be sure to select a non-drowsy antihistamine when trying to control your allergies on the job.
Vomiting or Diarrhea
While vomiting and diarrhea can be an indication that you are dealing with a contagious illness, there are a multitude of non-contagious conditions associated with these symptoms (for example, food poisoning and irritable bowel syndrome). Since you may not have convenient access to your workplace’s restroom and it is not professional to randomly leave patients to attend to your needs, it is best that you stay home and take care of yourself until these symptoms have subsided. Furthermore, if you are regularly experiencing these symptoms as a result of a non-contagious condition, we recommend that you connect with your doctor about treatment options that can help control and mitigate these symptoms.
Headaches can be symptomatic of both contagious and non-contagious conditions. For instance, flu sufferers frequently experience headaches as part of their illness. If you know that your headache is associated with a contagious condition, you are sick enough to stay home. Additionally, if your headache needs to be treated with doctor-prescribed medications that impair your ability to think and act clearly, it is best that you stay home until the side effects have subsided. Providing care while under the influence of prescription medications can put you, your patients and your facility at risk.
While making the decision to stay home from work while you’re sick can be difficult, the reality is that it sometimes is the best decision for you, your patients and your colleagues. The earlier you catch and treat the symptoms of a contagious illness, the faster you will be able to recover and return to work at full force. For more information on how to prevent the spread of the flu, visit the CDC’s Healthy Habits to Help Prevent Flu webpage.
A Note About COVID-19: If you are experiencing the symptoms of COVID-19 or have been exposed to a person that has been diagnosed with COVID-19, contact your supervisor before you report to work.
The content of this blog post is intended as general information only. For more detailed personal advice, contact a qualified medical practitioner that is familiar with your medical history.