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Prevent Flu: Go to Work or Stay in Bed?

To stop spread of the flu, stay home when you're contagious. How do you know?
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

It's a problem: Kids and adults going to work when they should stay home. Around any school or office, you hear them coughing and sneezing. Yet experts' flu prevention advice is clear: Stay home when you are sick.

The problem is, "With a lot of flu viruses, people can be infectious before they have symptoms," says Erica Brownfield, MD, a professor of internal medicine at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Recommended Related to Cold & Flu

Too Sick to Work?

You rise from a fitful night’s sleep with a sore throat and headache. Your temperature is slightly over 100 degrees, but judging by how crummy you feel, you wonder if it will spike to 103 degrees by day’s end. Should you drag yourself to work and risk infecting coworkers? Or should you phone in sick, even though your boss desperately needs you to pitch in during a stressful week? “People are concerned about calling in sick, but if you’re really feeling unwell and especially if you have a fever,...

Read the Too Sick to Work? article > >

In fact, you're spewing flu germs even before you realize you're sick, she tells WebMD. "They feel OK, and don't realize anything's wrong. Then 24 hours later, they start having flu symptoms. That's why viruses are so effective at being transmitted, because people can transmit without realizing they have the virus."

The onset of the flu feels much like a cold, she explains. "The only difference is a higher fever with the flu. If they don't think it's the flu, they may go about their daily business. That's especially true when parents have to go to work, and need to have their kids in child care."

Making It Work at School: Day Care Disasters

When the flu strikes, preschools, and daycare become hotbeds of infection. Because of the close quarters, preschool-age children are often the first affected -- and they pass the flu virus on to family members and others. In fact, some researchers advise that vaccinating 3- and 4-year-olds against flu might help curb flu epidemics.

Call the pediatrician first to see if you should keep the child at home, Brownfield advises.

Elementary kids are better about staying home, the CDC reports. In fact, the flu has caused high absenteeism among students and staff at the country's 119,000 schools. When children practice healthy habits, they miss less school -- about one-half day less.

Making it Work at the Office: Phone It In

Surveys show that presenteeism -- showing up at work when you're sick -- is a big problem in the workforce. In 2006, 56% of employers reported the problem, up from 39% in 2005. Most common reasons for showing up sick: Having too much work -- and fearing missing deadlines. Nearly 50% feared being disciplined at work for taking sick time.

To prevent the flu: