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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, you need to stay home,” says Catherine Cummins, MD, MSN, a health sciences assistant clinical professor at the University of California-Irvine School of Medicine. “A little bit of common sense goes a long way.”

What should you take into account when deciding whether you're too sick to work?

  • How well can you carry out your work duties? If you’re feeling quite sick, “you’re going to have a hard time functioning and performing at your normal level,” Cummins says.
  • Are you contagious? If you have a viral or bacterial illness, you’ll expose your coworkers and they in turn will infect others. Staying home when you’re sick helps to curb germs in the community. “It’s to contain the illness,” Cummins says.
  • Will resting at home help your body to overcome the illness? “We see a lot of worsening symptoms because people will just not stop and rest. They want to go; they want to be able to do everything that they normally do,” Cummins says. “What they don’t understand is that they’re pushing themselves to the point where they’re actually a lot sicker at the end of two to four days than they would have been if they had just taken that first day off and let their body fight the infection.”
  • Are you taking medications that could impair your ability to think, work, operate machinery, or drive? Let’s say, for example, that you’ve been prescribed Vicodin for back pain and it’s causing fuzzy thinking. “If you’re so sick that you’re using opiates or any controlled substance to control pain, you really need to stay home,” Cummins says. “You shouldn’t be driving, and you could have your performance impaired or it could even be dangerous.”

Lastly, use the golden rule, Cummins says. “Treat others as you would like to be treated. Think about if you would like it if someone came to work and coughed on you all day.”

Here are some guidelines on some common conditions that can make us too sick to work.

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