Everyday Health

What Are the Signs You’re Too Sick To Go to Work or School?

Originally published January 7, 2019

Last reviewed May 10, 2022

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Should you power it out and head to work or school or stay under the covers all day? Here are five telltale signs you need to rest and give your body time to feel better.

Some days it’s obvious that you have no choice but to call in sick — you have a high fever and chills, you can’t be farther than 5 feet away from a bathroom or your head starts spinning the second you sit up in bed. Other times it may not be so cut-and-dried, and you may be tempted to push it, especially if you don’t get paid for sick days or if you have an important meeting or test. But if you have these symptoms, calling in sick is not optional.

1. You have a fever.

You likely feel pretty lousy and tired and may have chills, and your temperature is inching up on the thermometer. But how do you know what temperature is in the fever zone? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s at least 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or 38 degrees Celsius. If you have flu-like symptoms, the CDC recommends that you stay home for at least a day after your fever is gone, except to get medical attention or take care of necessities.

2. You’re sniffly, coughing and have a scratchy throat but no fever.

You may have a cold. You’re more likely to pass your cold on to other people in the first two to three days of being sick; after the first week, you’re less likely to be contagious. For most healthy adults, cold symptoms get better within a week.

3. You have green or yellow nasal discharge.

These are symptoms of a sinus infection, and you’re better off staying in bed.

“Most sinus infections that last less than 10 days, that don’t have a high fever (greater than 101 degrees Fahrenheit) and that gradually get better without getting worse again are due to a virus,” says Elisabeth Ference, MD, an otolaryngologist at Keck Medicine of USC and assistant professor of clinical otolaryngology – head and neck surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “Antibiotics are not helpful for viral infections, but things that may help are saltwater irrigations of the nose and over-the-counter medications, such as decongestants, medications that thin mucus and anti-inflammatory pain medications.”

4. You have a killer headache.

A headache combined with sniffling, sneezing and a fever could mean it’s the flu, and you should stay home. You’re the most contagious from the day before your symptoms appear to five to seven days after you become sick. It may take anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks to recover from the flu, if you don’t develop any complications.

5. You have a hacking cough.

A cough is a common symptom of a cold, but if you have pain in your chest or difficulty breathing, it may be bronchitis or pneumonia. A trip to the doctor is in order.

If you’re still not sure whether you should call in sick, there are a few additional factors to consider:

  • Can you afford to stay home? If you know you have a quiet day ahead of you at the office or classroom, resting up at home is best.
  • Do you work with children, older adults or other at-risk populations? If you work with a group of people that is vulnerable to illness, you should stay home. And in fact, some employers, including schools and hospitals, may require you to do so.
  • Do you work at a coffee shop, restaurant or retail store? If yes, staying home is definitely called for. You won’t spread your germs to others — or pick up more germs at a time when your immune system is already taxed.
  • How alert do you need to be on the job? If you work in transportation or your job requires you to operate heavy machinery, stay home, especially if a lack of focus could harm yourself or others. This goes double if you’re taking any kind of medicine that can make you drowsy.


Dr. Elisabeth Ference
immune system
Anne Fritz
Anne Fritz is a freelance health and lifestyle writer.