Which Symptoms Should Trigger A Sick Day?

Which Symptoms Should Trigger A Sick Day? Our Cold And Flu Experts Weigh In To Help You Decide.

Sore Throat

A scratchy, sore throat can really put a damper on your day.  But Peter Galier, MD, an internal medicine specialist at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica, Calif., says it’s not enough to warrant a day at home.  “Most people with a cold will have a runny nose with post-nasal drip that runs down the back of the throat, making it a little sore and a little scratchy,” Galier says.  While your throat might hurt with a cold, you can usually still swallow, he explains. Unless it turns extremely painful, to the point that you can’t eat or drink, you can still go to work.

Runny Nose

When you burn through a box of tissues with a runny nose, you might think a sick day is in order.  It’s not.  “A runny nose that’s clear and drippy probably means a cold,” Galier says.  A nose that runs like a faucet is annoying, but the slime serves a purpose:  It rids the nose and sinuses of the germs that caused the cold.  It may also change color:  After a few days, it may go from clear to pasty white, yellow, or greenish as y.our immune system kicks in.  Though not exactly comfortable or attractive, Galier says, a runny nose on its own is more troublesome than worrisome, which means it doesn’t qualify as a reason to skip work.


Feel like you could use a catnap?  Or is “exhausted” putting it mildly?  How tired you feel can depend on how sick you are and whether you’ve caught a cold or the flu.  “Usually with a cold, you might feel a little tired and run-down,” Galier says.  “But typically you can make your way through a workday.”  Flu, on the other hand, brings an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, Galier explains.  You are so tired that you can’t get off the couch.  If this happens, it’s a no-brainer- there’s no choice but to call in sick.


Fever is a red flag during flu season, a sign your body is working hard to fight an infection.  William Schaffner, MD, chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., says colds don’t tend to cause fever- but the flu often does.  To make matters worse. A flu fever can come with a case of the chills.  While not everyone with flu will develop fever, “fever usually means flu,” says Schaffner.  “Most viruses that cause an upper respiratory infection or a cold might cause a low-grade fever, but nothing in the range of 101 or higher.  That means flu.”  Fever is a clear symptom that you should be home in bed.  “You to wait until the fever is gone and you’ve been fever-free for 24 hours before you go back to work, to make sure you are not contagious,” Galier says.


With an average case of the flu, you frequently have a dry cough, Schaffner explains.  The flu itself will probably keep you home from work, and the cough is likely to be just an annoying symptom.  Coughs that accompany a cold aren’t nestled deep in your lungs- instead, they’re often caused by a runny nose draining down your through.  In this case, a cough is not a free pass to skip work.  But coughs aren’t quite so cut and dried.  A wet, juicy cough, for instance, can be a sign that a cold or flu virus has led to a complication in your lower airways, congesting your bronchi (the passages in the trachea that lead to the lungs) and your lungs.  So when it comes to coughs, here’s a good rule of thumb:  If you have trouble breathing and you start coughing up lots of phlegm, you not only need to stay away from work but also should see a doctor, Schaffner says.  Bronchitis or pneumonia might be to blame.

Muscle Aches and Pains

The flu hurts. You feel it in your bones and your muscles.  The expression “I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck” takes on a whole new meaning.  “Muscle aches and pains are classic symptoms of the flu,” Galier says.  There’s a big difference, he explains, between having a runny nose and head-ache that comes with the flu.  The rule for this one is simple:  If you’re in a world of hurt, take a sick day.

Appetite Loss

There’s nothing better than curling up on the couch with a warm bowl of soup when you’re down and out.  Craving foods that are soothing and easy to digest, Galier explains, is often a hall-mark of colds.  “Cheese, breads, soups…these are the kinds of foods people want when they have a cold and their appetite is still intact.”  When you lose your appetite and don’t eat for a day or two, it’s typically something more serious- yes, like the flu.  A good guideline to follow:  If you’re well enough to eat, you’re probably well enough to go to work.


Web MD, January/February 2013 Edition

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