Do you have symptoms of a cold or the flu? Wondering if it’s okay to go to work?
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It’s important to understand some key facts about each illness to take care of yourself and to help prevent your coworkers from coming down with your bug. Here’s how.
When should I stay home?
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends staying home if you’re sick, especially during flu season.
“When you have a fever, regardless of what else is going on, stay home,” says Robin Roach, RN. “Fever is an indication of systemic illness, not just a localized illness. A cold is localized in your nose and throat. Fever is rare in a cold.”
Another sign you should stay home: red or draining eyes. This may indicate pink eye, another potentially contagious condition in its own right. Overall, if you think your illness will prevent you from performing your work duties, stay home.
How long should I stay on the bench?
Say you came down with something on Friday evening, stayed in bed all weekend and then started to feel better by Sunday evening. You may think you’re good to go by Monday, but are you really?
Your first priority: don’t return to work until your fever is gone for at least 24 hours. And sorry, reducing your fever using medications doesn’t count: you can still spread germs even if you’ve been diligently taking Tylenol.
In fact, according to the CDC, most adults are able to infect other people with flu from one day before symptoms develop, all the way up to seven days after they first become sick. In other words, you’re possibly contagious before you realize you’re sick, while you’re sick (obviously) and even after you think you’re in the clear.
The bottom line: When in doubt, sit it out.
What if not working is not an option?
If you absolutely, positively have to be at work, do your best to keep your distance from others, Roach says. Although this approach, called social distancing, is actually a public health strategy to prevent a community-wide influenza pandemic, the flu-avoiding principles apply at work as well.
“If you’re not feeling well at work, I recommend staying in your office, away from people as much as possible,” Roach says. “If you have to meet with others, sit at the other end of the table.”
Other social distancing steps include not shaking hands, avoiding the break room—especially during busy times—rescheduling non-essential travel and replacing in-person meetings with teleconferencing. And, of course, if you have the means, working from home is a good bet.
Preventing the flu
“The best thing to do is to prevent the flu in the first place,” says Roach. Here are some steps you can take:
- Get vaccinated. The CDC recommends all adults get a yearly flu vaccine—with an emphasis on yearly. As Roach explains, the flu virus changes a little bit every year, and sometimes, it changes a lot.
- Practice good hand hygiene. Use soap and water and scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds.
- Follow respiratory etiquette. That means sneezing or coughing into a tissue and immediately discarding the tissue.
- Clean germ-laden areas. Roach says areas where people congregate tend to be the most prone to the accumulation of germs. Use bleach wipes to clean doorknobs and surfaces in public areas as well as your own workspace. Remember: you can pick up a virus from a contaminated surface for up to 48 hours
- Take care of yourself. Eat healthy food, get enough sleep and stay away from sick people, Roach says.
Sound cold and flu etiquette can help protect you from getting sick, and, in case you do succumb, reduce the changes you share your germs with others.