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Published on December 21, 2016

Woman with Cold in Office

Sick? When to Tough it Out and When to Stay Home

Do your job. Here in the Midwest, our strong work ethic is almost taken for granted.

But when you’re sick, it’s time to shelve that good attitude. “Gutting it out” when you’re shedding a virus around the workplace is not productive.

Scott Hiltunen, MD, an Avera Medical Group internal medicine physician, said we can all use a bit more education when it comes to this topic. We are diligent to a fault, but when we’re running a temperature, coughing or suffering from symptoms like diarrhea or vomiting, we’re more-than-likely making others ill.

“You’re actually not helping your business, company or team by coming in sick, because when you do, you’ll share the sickness. You probably won’t be too productive anyway and someone may take those germs and share them,” he said. “What if your coworker gets sick and passes that to an infant or elderly person? You’re doing everyone more of a favor by just staying home sick and getting better.”

Too often, people go in, figuring it’s expected.

But when employers push people to come in, it’s counterintuitive. That sick employee will spread it around, and then you’ll be even more short-handed.

There are some guidelines, Hiltunen said, that can help you make the best decision. If you feel something coming on, treat it aggressively for each symptom with over-the-counter medicines. He said he’ll use multivitamins, especially ones with plenty of zinc, in an effort to zap the germs before the cold gets too bad. But you have to hit it that first day or those efforts will evaporate in their effectiveness.

If you’re coughing, facing a fever of 100.5 degrees or higher, have a runny nose – just generally displaying the whole smorgasbord of sickness – stay home. Rest and hydration will help you get through those first 48-72 hours, when you’re most likely to unknowingly share it with coworkers.

“If you have an active cough or a low-grade fever, consider whether or not you could have the flu – especially if you didn’t get the vaccine,” Hiltunen said. “It’s important to remember that flu treatments we can provide work best if patients get them right away.”

Young children, older folks and anyone with a compromised immune system, such as chemotherapy patients, should get to their doctor’s office right away when facing symptoms. If that fever goes up to or exceeds 102 degrees – especially after taking ibuprofen to tamp it down – it’s time to go see your doctor.

“When we get calls on this, we usually ask if the person is pale or has headache and confusion, or if they seem to be in distress,” Hiltunen said. “If they do, they are asked to come in so we can make sure they are OK.”

Virtual visits via smartphone or laptop also can help, especially for those people who’d prefer to be seen without leaving home.

Once you’ve decided to stay home, use over-the-counter medicine to treat symptoms and, yes, have chicken soup and juice, because they offer vitamins and comfort that will help. Hydration helps your body fight the germs, but he said it’s a myth that you can “flush” your system faster. But even mild dehydration can worsen symptoms or make them linger.

“Even doctors stay home and recover instead of coming in, so we practice our own advice – and we hope you will as well,” Hiltunen said. “Respect yourself, your coworkers and their families – as well as your customers – enough to know we’ll see you back at work when you’re feeling better.”

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