Should I stay or should I go?

Sick days are precious, but so is your health. Three docs weigh in on when it's OK to soldier on at the office — and when it's really not

“Whoa — Typhoid Mary’s in there!”

When I heard that little exclamation outside my cubicle one morning, I knew I’d come back to work a tad too early after a bad bout of bronchitis. With an explosive, head-rattling cough, I should have just accepted the fact that another sick day was in order.

For parents, though, sick days are precious, salted away for times when our kids wake up coughing, sniffling and complaining of tummy troubles. When we’re under the weather, we tend to line our pockets with cough drops and tissues and trudge into work. But is that always the right thing to do? We asked Carol McConnery, a family doctor in Gatineau, Que., Kieran Michael Moore, an emergency and family physician in Kingston, Ont., and Betty Burcher, a lecturer with the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing at the University of Toronto to tell us: When it comes to our most common ailments, should we tough it out at work or throw in the Kleenex and stay in bed?

Symptom: A hefty hack

Go If your cough is relatively dry, it’s probably viral and you’re not likely to be contagious. Ask a pharmacist which cough suppressant is best for you, and be sure to keep sipping fluids (water, juice, tea with honey) throughout the day to soothe your throat. To ward off hacking fits, McConnery suggests stashing a pack of cough drops or hard candies in your desk.

Stay “Are you coughing stuff up? Is it thick, green, yellow or white?” asks Burcher. “If so, head to your doctor or nurse practitioner because it could be a sign of infection.” If you are prescribed antibiotics, McConnery recommends staying home for 24 hours after starting the meds to avoid being contagious to colleagues. Other red flags telling you to stay home: You’re coughing so hard you lose your breath or start to retch or vomit, or you’re feeling those dreaded flu symptoms — fever, achy muscles or chills. And public health experts note if your cough comes on the heels of a recent trip outside the country, it’s best to check it out and get the doc’s OK to return to work.

Symptom: The mercury’s rising

Go If it’s a low-grade fever (under 38°C/100.4°F) with no other symptoms, you could tough it out at work, says McConnery. Try taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen — both help keep pain and fever under control.

Stay “A high fever in an adult is unusual and has to be considered in the context of what’s going on seasonally,” says Moore. “If it’s flu season, typically from October to March, and you’ve got other signs of the flu, stay home,” he says. You should have a medical assessment and stay home to control your symptoms. What’s a high fever? Anything over 38°C (100.4°F).

Symptom: Oh, my aching head

Go If you think you can get through the day, head into the office with a bottle of acetaminophen (Tylenol), anti-inflammatory drugs (Advil or Motrin) or Aspirin. These all work within 15 to 20 minutes. If you’re pregnant or nursing, it’s probably best to stick with acetaminophen.

Stay “If you have a migraine and work on a computer all day, that can make it worse,” says McConnery. “If it’s the worst headache of your life, then definitely see a doctor and don’t go to work.” If the headache is sudden and severe, triggers vomiting or is accompanied by unusual symptoms, such as slurred speech, dizziness, blurred vision or body numbness, get to an emergency room ASAP.

Symptom: A nose that runneth over

Go If you’re not showing any other flu-like symptoms, you can go to work armed with packets of sinus-relieving meds and tissue. And to spare your colleagues, make sure you wash your hands or use an antibacterial gel regularly, especially after you’ve blown your nose.

Stay “If you have sinus congestion and the facial pain that goes with it, avoid going in if your work involves heights or pressure — like a flight attendant,” says McConnery. “The pressure can really increase the pain.”

Symptom: Nothing’s staying down — or in

Go With diarrhea, Moore says it’s ideal to stay home 48 hours after it clears. “Often people go back to work too early,” he says. “They’re still infectious up to two days after their symptoms have resolved.” The reality? Once the cramping and constant pressure have let up a bit, you can probably head back to the office the next morning. Wash your hands often and down plenty of clear liquids — diarrhea and vomiting, especially together, can really suck the hydration out of your body. McConnery advises against using antidiarrheal medication, unless you know you won’t have access to a washroom for a long time. “Diarrhea means you’re getting rid of a bug, and those medications just block the intestine,” she says.

Stay If you can’t stop vomiting and you’re also suffering diarrhea, you should stay home. “If you went to work, you’d probably be spending a lot of time running to the bathroom, and you could also easily pass diarrhea on to other people in your workplace,” says Burcher.

Symptom: Itchy eyeballs

Go If your daughter brought home oozy, crusty pink eye from daycare and now you’ve caught it, your work shouldn’t be affected. Adults are less likely to spread pink eye because their personal hygiene is much better. “We’re much less infectious than our children — children share mucus freely, which is why we keep them home with pink eye. You can just seek medical treatment [if the infection is bacterial, an antihistamine or antibiotic eye drops are enough to control the infection] and go back to work afterwards,” says Moore. But be vigilant about washing your hands — not only to avoid passing on the itch, but to spare your other eye from infection.

Stay If you work in a field where you have a lot of physical contact with people (health or child care), you should probably stay home until the condition clears.

Symptom: Sprains and strains

Go This is a judgment call — if you’re not going to be putting pressure on the strain, then you’re likely fine to head to work. Pain relievers, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can also help ease the ache.

Stay For bad muscle strains, such as throwing your back out, rest is required — but typically only for 24 hours. “After that, bed rest is actually bad for the condition,” says Moore. “Walking and mobilization improve outcome, so returning to work is often advised.”

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