Everyday Health

What Are the Signs You’re Too Sick to Go to Work or School?

Originally published January 7, 2019

Last updated April 23, 2024

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Should you power it out and head to work or school or stay under the covers all day? Here are five telltale signs you need to rest and give your body time to feel better.

Some days it’s obvious that you have no choice but to call in sick — you have a high fever, chills, you can’t be farther than 5 feet away from a bathroom, or your head hurts when you sit up in bed. Other times it may not be so cut-and-dried, and you may be tempted to push it, especially if you don’t get paid for sick days or if you have an important meeting or test. 

“In general, if you have a fever, cough or fatigue, you should stay home,” says Kevin Hur, MD, a rhinology specialist at Keck Medicine of USC.

Here Dr. Hur outlines five signs that you should call in sick and stay home to rest.

1. You have a fever.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a fever is at least 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius. If you have flu-like symptoms, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least a day after your fever is gone, except to get medical attention or take care of necessities.

2. You’re sniffly, coughing and have a scratchy throat but no fever.

You may have a cold, and you’re more likely to pass your cold on to other people in the first two to three days of being sick.

“You generally are contagious, as long as you have symptoms,” says Dr. Hur, an assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “You may be more contagious, when your symptoms are more severe.”

For most healthy adults, cold symptoms get better within a week.

3. You have green or yellow nasal discharge.

These are symptoms of a sinus infection, and you’re better off staying in bed.

For symptom relief, try saltwater rinses, decongestants, anti-inflammatory pain medications or medications that thin mucus.

4. You have a killer headache.

A headache combined with sniffling, sneezing and a fever could mean it’s the flu, and you should stay home. You’re the most contagious in the first three to four days after your illness begins, though flu viruses may be detected one day before symptoms develop and up to five to seven days after becoming sick. It may take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to recover from the flu, if you don’t develop any complications.

5. You have a hacking cough.

A cough is a common symptom of a cold, but if you have pain in your chest or difficulty breathing, it may be bronchitis or pneumonia. A trip to the doctor is in order.

Stay home to stop the spread of germs.

Staying home when you feel sick is the main way to prevent others from getting sick. If you work with children, older adults or other at-risk populations, it’s even more important to stay home. In fact, some employers, including schools and hospitals, may require you to do so.

And if you work at a coffee shop, restaurant or retail store, you should also take the day off. This will prevent you from spreading your germs to others — or picking up more germs at a time when your immune system is already taxed.


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Anne Fritz
Anne Fritz is a freelance health and lifestyle writer.