When should illness keep you at home,
or warrant a call to the doctor?
Darla Van Heerde, M.D.
It's the day of your important office meeting, and you wake up with a runny nose and a hacking cough. Should you call in sick, or tough it out and make your meeting? It's the day of the big field trip at school and your child is complaining of a sore throat and tummy ache. Is it okay for her to go to school?
When should illness keep you at home? When is it okay to resume your regular activities? When should you call the doctor? When it comes to illness, sometimes it's hard to know what to do, but there are general rules to follow when deciding when to stay home and when to call the doctor.
Runny nose/ fever/sore throat
If your nose is running, but you have no other symptoms, you're probably suffering from allergies. Allergies aren't contagious, so it's okay to head out the door to work or school.
If your sniffles are accompanied by body aches, tiredness, or a fever, you are probably coming down with a cold or the flu. In addition to not feeling well, you are contagious during the first few days of your illness. Staying home will help keep the germs from the workplace and will help speed your recovery.
Antibiotics don't work against viral infections such as the common cold. So, although you feel miserable, it's probably best to treat your cold with home remedies and over-the-counter medication. There's no need to see the doctor at this point.
If your cold or flu gets progressively worse, and you have difficulty breathing or chest pain, you should call the doctor. These symptoms could indicate a more serious problem such as heart disease, asthma, or pneumonia.
If you have a fever and a sore throat with white spots on your tonsils, call your doctor. You may have strep throat, a bacterial infection that can be treated with antibiotics. It's safe for a person with strep throat to return to school or work 24 hours after starting antibiotic treatment.
Colds and allergies can cause congestion and blockage of the sinus passages, leading to an infection. If you have pain around the eyes, top of the forehead, or cheekbones, you may have a sinus infection. Call your doctor to see if you need to be treated with an antibiotic. Sinus infections aren't contagious, so once you begin treatment you can return to school or work, provided you feel well enough to do so.
If you have a headache that is so severe that you can't tolerate noise or light, you may have a migraine. While they aren't contagious, most people find it impossible to concentrate during a migraine, and therefore should stay at home. If you haven't seen a doctor about your headaches, make an appointment. There are medications available that can shorten the duration and intensity of migraine headaches.
If you have a minor cough that feels like a tickle your throat and it isn't accompanied by any other symptoms, it's probably okay to go to school or work.
If a cough is deep, and makes you short of breath it's probably time to stay home and see the doctor. A severe cough could indicate a serious illness such as bronchitis or pneumonia.
If you or your child is vomiting or has diarrhea, the best place to be is at home. Minor vomiting or diarrhea can usually be treated at home. If a person is unable to keep down fluids for more than a couple days, he or she may need to see a doctor to help maintain hydration. You or your child should be symptom-free for 24 hours before returning to school or work.
Stomach upset or headache accompanied by a sore throat are indicators of strep throat. Stay home and call your doctor to schedule a test for strep throat, and follow your doctor's instructions about returning to school or work.
Ear infections aren't contagious, but they do warrant a call to the doctor. Some ear infections require antibiotic treatment. Once treatment has begun, you can return to school or work.
It's no fun to be sick, but when you are, often the best place to be is at home. As a general rule of thumb, you should stay away from school or work if you are contagious, or if you feel too sick to leave the house. Staying home, getting plenty of rest and fluids actually helps your body recover faster. And a quick recovery means you'll be less likely to miss the next important office meeting or special school activity.
Dr. Van Heerde is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.