How Sick Is Too Sick to Attend Work or Class?

How Sick Is Too Sick for Class

Branislav Cerven /

You wake up with a pounding headache, your nose is running, and you start coughing into your coffee. You feel sick… should you go to work or class, or should you stay home?

Not surprisingly, there is a lot of debate on this subject. About 25% of Americans go to work when they’re sick. For hourly employees, it’s partly a financial concern: With no paid sick days, if they don’t work, they’re not paid. Even for full-time employees, taking a sick day can be a hassle. Some employers require a doctor’s note or ask for a heads up, but all typically have a limit on the number of sick days that an employee can take. With a limit in place, it can be tempting to save days in case they’re needed later.

Employers also have reason to discourage employees from calling in sick: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, employee absenteeism due to illness and injury costs US employers $225.8 billion each year. Unfortunately, employer policy and pressure can cause you to go to work when you really aren’t at your best. When you’re sick, your productivity levels will be down and you may expose others to infectious germs.

Students face a similar dilemma: A 2006 survey found that 71% of students aged 5–17 had missed at least one day of school in the past year due to illness. For students in elementary, middle, and high schools, parents usually have the final say in whether a student stays home sick. In college, students have to make these choices for themselves, and deal with any consequences.

Once you’re in college, your professors may track class attendance and factor it into your grade. Sometimes missed classes beyond a certain number result in a letter grade deduction. Other times, students who miss class are unable to turn in their assignments late, resulting in a poor grade. But even if they don’t take attendance, you’ll have to figure out what material you missed, which can be a task in and of itself. The point is, you don’t want to miss more classes than you have to.

So, when should you try to tough it out, and when should you stay home?

Typically, illnesses are caused by either bacteria or viruses. Bacterial illnesses can be treated with antibiotics, but viruses usually just have to run their course. (The antiviral drug Tamiflu is an exception, but it only shortens the duration and severity of symptoms rather than actually treating the illness.) Note that even if you get an antibiotic, you are still contagious for about 24 hours after you start taking it. Bacteria and viruses can easily spread to others, too, and you are most contagious when you’re showing symptoms of illness.

Common bacterial infections (illnesses caused by bacteria) include:

  • Ear infections
  • Pneumonia
  • Sinusitis
  • Strep throat
  • Urinary tract infections (UTIs)

Note: Not all bacterial infections are contagious, but they still have the potential to make you feel extremely crummy. Talk to a doctor about whether or not your infection is contagious and when it’s safe for you to return to work or school.

Common viral infections (illnesses caused by viruses) include:

  • Chickenpox
  • Common cold (also known as an upper respiratory infection)
  • Influenza (flu)
  • Mononucleosis

Fever, sneezing, and coughing are all signs that you are contagious. Sneezing and coughing send germs into the air, where they can land on other people or surfaces. Germs can live on hard surfaces (like doorknobs, phones, and pens) for 24 hours, meaning that they can potentially infect others within that time frame. If you go to class or work one day while you’re sick, and end up infecting five other people while you’re there, your employer or school is much worse off than if you had just stayed home for a day. If you have a fever or are coughing or sneezing, it’s best for everyone if you take the day off. Although it probably goes without saying, vomiting and diarrhea are other symptoms that indicate that you should definitely stay home.

Symptoms that are difficult to measure are more of a judgment call. If you have a migraine, you probably won’t be able to get very much done, so it’s best to stay home, but if you have a mild headache and access to Tylenol, you can probably tough it out. If you have a runny nose without other symptoms, it could be allergies and you can take medicine to get through the day (and you probably won’t get anyone else sick). Use your best judgement.

Stay home if you’re experiencing one or more of these contagious symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Sneezing (not related to allergies)
  • Coughing
  • On antibiotics for fewer than 24 hours

Use your best judgement if you’re experiencing one or more of these less-likely-to-be-contagious symptoms:

  • Headache or migraine
  • Runny nose or sneezing (related to allergies)
  • Aches and pains in the absence of other symptoms

If you do need to take a sick day, there are some things to keep in mind. Some schools and employers require a doctor’s note to prove that you were absent due to illness. Although it can be frustrating to have to go to the doctor’s office when you already know you have a cold or the flu (and the doctor likely won’t be able to treat it), schools and employers are allowed to ask for documentation. Due to privacy laws, the information on a doctor’s note is typically limited to how long you will need to be out for.

If you need to miss one or more classes, read your syllabi. Consider whether there is a test or paper due that day. If there is, you will need to contact your professor(s) immediately to figure out how to make it up or get your assignments to classmates who can turn them in for you. Even if there isn’t an assignment due or a test you’re missing, you should contact your professors anyway and ask what material is going to be covered in your absence. Staying on top of your work and assignments will help you in the long run.

Although you may be tempted to go to work or class when you’re really sick, don’t forget that there are other people who will be exposed to your germs if you cough, sneeze, or touch anything. If your symptoms are particularly contagious, do everyone a favor and stay home until you’re better. If your symptoms are less extreme, it’s more of a judgment call on your part. Decide whether you can tough it out for the duration of work or class. Whichever route you choose, drink plenty of water and get plenty of rest. Hopefully you’ll be feeling better in no time!

About Hannah Holley

Hannah earned a BS in Psychology from the College of Charleston, and an MA in applied behavior analysis from Ball State University. She is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and worked as a therapist for children with special needs for more than five years, but now spends most of her time keeping up with her own toddler. In between playing cars and picking up after her tiny human tornado, she loves to try new recipes, take photographs, and re-watch episodes of "Parks and Recreation" for the 10th time. Hannah lives in Charleston, SC.

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