What if I can’t stay home when I’m sick?

January 11, 2018 | UC Irvine Health
man with the flu

We’ve all done it: worked while sick, especially during cold and flu season, even though doctors say we should rest at home and avoid spreading germs.

Maybe it was because a huge project was due or we had used up our paid sick time. Then again, many of us don’t get paid if we don’t work.

UCI Health Dr. David L. Sodaro stayed home four days during last year’s flu season. But the Tustin-based family medicine physician knows we can’t always skip work until we’re symptom free.

He urges taking a realistic self-assessment before heading to the office and spreading your illness to others.

“If you have a fever over 100 degrees, you are highly infectious, so do not go to work,” Sodaro says. “A fever that won’t break for three days — or a fever combined with a rash — both signal that it’s time to stay home and maybe even see a doctor.”

Treat your symptoms

If you must go to work, help yourself by:

“We like to say the solution to pollution is dilution,” Sodaro says. “Hydration and rest are keys to getting your immune system to heal you.”

Avoid spreading your infection

He also suggests the following precautions to lower the risk of infecting your co-workers, clients or customers:

  • Wear a mask to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets
  • Pull your arm across your chest — Dracula-style — to sneeze or cough into your elbow
  • Offer a fist or elbow to bump, rather than a hand to shake
  • Wear gloves
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Use throwaway wipes to clean any objects and surfaces you touch, including computers, business machines, desktops, door handles and countertops
  • Dress in layers to keep your core body temperature up and avoid getting a chill in air-conditioned offices

Be mindful of the risk you pose to others

We don’t always think about how our symptoms might affect the people we encounter when we’re sick. Before long, our sniffles and coughs can result in a workplace full of ailing employees as germs circulate through closed air-conditioning systems.

“Human interaction spreads infection,” Sodaro says. “Prevention is the key to staying well. Certain groups of people — like restaurant and grocery store workers who interact with many people every day — should stay home.”

Catching your symptoms can be downright dangerous for many people. Stay clear of:

  • The very old
  • The very young
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone whose immune system is compromised because of cancer or transplants
  • People with heart disease, asthma and chronic respiratory diseases

Prevention strategies

Even if you aren’t sick, Sodaro notes that most things you touch — door knobs, elevator buttons, railings, even fruits and vegetables at the market — may well have been handled by someone who is contagious.

The smart thing to do is act like a germophobe:

  • On packed holidays and weekends, avoid the mall — it’s like a hothouse for colds and other communicable diseases.
  • At the grocery store, use wipes provided at the entryway to clean cart handles. Keep another to use on your hands when you’re done shopping.
  • Be aware that any food items you handle may well have been touched by someone who has an infection.
  • Take special care when traveling through airports and other areas where large numbers of people congregate.

One more thing, Sodaro adds: It’s not too late to get a flu shot.

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