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Health Tips brought to you by U.S. HealthWorks Medical Group. Our experienced medical experts provide information here that we hope will broaden your healthcare knowledge.

Today we talk to Dr. A.K. Misra about whether or not it’s a good idea to go to work when you don’t feel well. Dr. Misra is double board certified in Sports and Internal Medicine, and is Medical Director for U.S. HealthWorks in South San Francisco.

Q: When is it OK to go to work sick, and when is it better to stay home?

A: This is a tough call, and good judgment is paramount in deciding. First, listening to the language of your body is pivotal. Generally speaking, if something is not severe, you can likely administer self-care through rest, hydration and perhaps some over-the-counter medication. However, if you feel that your symptoms are getting worse rapidly, as they tend to in cases of the flu or pneumonia, you should see a medical professional for a comprehensive evaluation to slow down the progression and to treat it correctly.

As for going to work with a minor illness, it is still essential to keep your distance from coworkers and wash hands frequently to avoid the spread of germs. If you truly feel ill, whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with something serious, stay home and rest. That is why many employers provide sick days.

Q: Should you stay home even if it’s just a common cold?

A: It is important to first identify the simple signs and symptoms of a cold versus the flu. This is the most common mistake well-intentioned people make. The table below from the CDC contains information that I commonly share with patients to educate them about what they are experiencing:

A cold is less problematic, but someone with the flu should be seen by a physician as soon as possible because it can be lethal. Even in instances where the flu is not lethal, it can cause significant complications unless it is treated promptly. A cold is something you can manage and still go to work, but I do not recommend the same for the flu because it is extremely contagious.

For example, in Sports Medicine if a player on a team has influenza, that patient is often quarantined so as not to infect other players on the team. That same risk applies to the workplace, whether you work in a social job or otherwise.

Q: What are some ways I can prevent the spread of germs at my office if I go to work while I’m sick?

A: Precautions such as washing your hands regularly and covering your mouth before coughing or sneezing are best to reduce the spread of harmful viruses and germs. Additionally, try to keep to yourself more than usual – stay in your office unless you need to get up for water or a restroom break, avoid touching the water cooler or refrigerator unless absolutely necessary, and wipe down any shared surfaces after touching them. If you have a door on your office, you may want to consider keeping it closed and letting co-workers know that you’re fighting through a cold.

Q: What can an employer do to ensure illness isn’t spread at work?

A: The precautions I just mentioned should be restated and posted in as many visible places as possible. Special attention needs to be paid to these health precautions from fall to the end of winter. It is pivotal to educate the work force about when to seek professional help, as well as to provide helpful references such as the CDC website. It is also good for employers to encourage employees to get vaccinated against the flu during the season. As the old saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.”

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  • American College of Physicians
  • Andrews Research & Education Foundation
  • American Board of Internal Medicine
  • JJM Medical College
  • Acuity Benefit consulting