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?

From the WebMD Archives

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.

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.


Sick workers get little done. If you don't feel well, you're not productive -- and the quality of your work suffers. You're also spreading your illness to other employees, further adding to the problem. Bottom line: Phone it in. Stay at home.

If the sickies still show up, flu prevention is the key for you. "That's why the flu shot is a good idea," says Brownfield. "It's also a good idea to wash hands several times a day, and keep hands away from mouth and nose... all the basic stuff we forget about."

Many offices now provide gel sanitizers that you can keep at your desk. They're also available at supermarkets and drugstores. The gel doesn't need water to work; the alcohol kills germs that cause colds and flu.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on October 01, 2010


SOURCES: Erica Brownfield, MD, a professor of internal medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta. CDC: "Stopping the Spread of Germs at Home, Work, & School" and "Good Health Habits for Preventing the Flu." WebMD News: "Preschool Kids Driving Flu Epidemics?" and "Sick Workers at Work Worry Employers."

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