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How sick is too sick to go to work?

Christine Clarridge, The Seattle Times on

Published in Health & Fitness

Got a slightly scratchy throat and a little congestion?

Sounds like a common cold and maybe you can get away with going to work or school, and not infecting your colleagues if you're diligent and conscientious about covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze and washing your hands.

But if you have even the slightest chill, fever or the beginning of body aches, you really need to stay home, according to physicians and public health experts.

"If you have a fever that's over 100.5 or you're aching all over, that is a good sign it's time to stay home," said Peter McGough, medical director for the University of Washington health clinics.

"Those are the early, acute symptoms of the flu, and you should definitely stay home because it is highly contagious in those first days," McGough said. "All those people who are hacking and coughing all around the office are probably in day seven to 10. If they cover their mouth and wash their hands, it may be OK."

McGough acknowledged that it can be tough to stay home when people have limited, or unpaid, sick days, but said it's still the right thing to do.

"The other thing people do is go in when they know they are sick with the misguided feeling that they don't want to let people down," he said. "What they are doing, though, is putting their co-workers at risk and if they work in any kind of service industry, they are exposing the people they are supposed to taking care of."

"Basically, if you feel sick, you need to stay home," McGough said.

Right now it's an especially critical moment to observe considerate health practices as there is a "ton" of flu and respiratory viruses going around, he said.

"We are seeing both influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus, which is very tough on children, older people and vulnerable people, taking off like a jet."

Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health -- Seattle & King County, also urged people with the classic flu symptoms of headaches, body aches, fatigue and chills to stay home for their own good and the good of others. He cautioned people to practice good hygiene by washing hands and covering coughs upon their return to work.

In addition, Duchin urged people to get the flu vaccine.

"We are likely going to have 12 or more additional weeks in the flu season," he said in an email. "There are multiple respiratory viruses circulating, and your current misery may be due to one of the non-influenza viruses, with the real flu still to come."

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