Common Cold: Too Sick to Work?

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 11, 2022
4 min read

You wake up in the morning and you're not feeling so great. Maybe sneezing is your No. 1 problem. Or you've got a doozy of a headache. Whatever is bothering you, you've got a decision to make: Stay home or head to work?

Take stock of your symptoms and see if they meet this commonsense standard for calling in sick:

If you've the sniffles, but you're not achy or feverish and feel fine otherwise, you probably have allergies. It's OK to go to work.

You can turn to several over-the-counter medicines to treat mild allergies. But keep in mind that some medications, such as diphenhydramine or chlorpheniramine, can make you sleepy. Drugs with less of this side effect include loratidine and cetirizine.

If your hay fever is severe or doesn't get better with antihistamines, you might want to see an allergist. They can do tests to find out what's triggering the problem. They may recommend allergy shots to reduce your symptoms.

For in-depth information, see Allergy or Cold Symptoms?

If your clothes are getting drenched, you most likely have a fever. Make sure you drink plenty of liquids. Consider seeing your doctor, especially if your temperature is over 102 degrees F. That could be a sign that you have an infection, such as the flu.

If you have a fever plus white patches on your tonsils, you may have strep throat. It's highly contagious and you may need an antibiotic. Call your doctor for a test that can confirm the diagnosis.

For in-depth information, see Sore Throat: Cold, Strep Throat, or Tonsillitis?

If you've got a tickle in the back of your throat or it feels like mucus is dripping into that area from your nose, your cough is probably from allergies or a cold. But unless you've got other symptoms like aches or fever, get dressed and go to work!

If you've been sick for a few days and you now cough up darker yellow mucus, it's still probably just a cold. But if it goes on this way for more than a week, it's a good idea to see your doctor.

If your cough feels deep and makes you short of breath, it's probably more than a common cold. It could be a sign of something more serious, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, so stay at home and call your doctor right away.

For more information, see When a Cold Becomes Bronchitis.

If your ear really hurts and you can't hear well, you could have an ear infection. Getting stuffed up from a cold can also cause pain. Either way, you need to call your doctor to find the cause. They may prescribe an antibiotic or pain-relief medicine.

Ear infections aren't contagious. But if you have cold symptoms along with an earache, you might spread it to someone else during the first 2 to 3 days.

For in-depth information, see Earache: Cold or Ear Infection?

If you have pain around your eyes, top of the forehead, cheekbones, and even the top of your teeth, it may be a sign you've got a sinus infection. Go ahead and call in sick.

The next day, you'll probably be able to go to work, since it usually isn't contagious. If you're very sick or your symptoms get worse after a week, call your doctor.

For more information, see When a Cold Becomes a Sinus Infection.

If you wake up with a headache, it may be a cold or flu, especially if you have other symptoms such as sneezing, stuffy nose, and body aches. You may need to stay home a day or two while you're most contagious and feel the worst.

If you have a headache and can't handle noise or light, you may have a migraine and shouldn't be at work. If this is something that happens to you again and again, see a doctor. There are medications that can help.

If your eye is red with creamy white or yellow stuff in the corners -- and your eyelashes get matted -- you probably have pinkeye. It can spread easily to others, so don't go to work. Call your doctor to see if you need to get it treated with an antibiotic. Make sure you wash your hands often so you don't infect anyone else.