Common Cold: Too Sick to Work?

 Common cold too sick to work

Common Cold: Too Sick to Work?

If you have a cold, are you too sick to work? While you can try to run from a common cold, you can't hide! And you must use common sense before you expose others at work to your cold virus. Findings show that when we're sick with the common cold, we're not very productive. In fact, lost productivity on the job accounts for up to 60% of employer health costs -- more than if the sick employees had taken a sick day.

So, what should you do when you wake up sneezing, congested, and feeling miserable from a common cold?


If you are sniffling, feeling achy and tired, and have a fever, you may be coming down with the common cold or the flu. You are most contagious during the first 24 hours through the first few days of catching a cold virus, and you will feel miserable. With a cold, you will not get much work done, and you'll get well faster if you get some rest. Don't be generous with your germs. Keep your cold to yourself, and stay home!

If you are sniffling but not achy or feverish and feel fine otherwise, you probably have allergies. With allergies, you can go to work. In addition, you might want to see an allergist to find out what's triggering your allergies.

Allergy symptoms can rob you of quality of life, especially when they occur day after day. Your allergist can do allergy tests to find out your allergy triggers. Your allergist may then recommend allergy shots (immunotherapy) to help decrease your allergy symptoms.

Chills and Sweats

Got a fever? If your clothes are getting drenched, you most likely have a fever. Drink more fluids and consider seeing your doctor, especially if your fever is over 102 degrees F. That could be a sign that you have the flu. Stay away from work -- and friends -- until you feel better.

If you have a fever plus white patches on your tonsils, you may have strep throat. Strep throat is highly contagious and you may need an antibiotic. Call your doctor for a strep test.


If you've got a tickle in the back of your throat or it feels like you have postnasal drip, your cough is probably from allergies or the common cold. But unless you've got other common cold symptoms such as aches or fever, get dressed and go to work!

If you've had a cold for a few days and are now coughing up darker yellow mucus, it's still probably just a cold. If you continue to cough up dark mucus after a week, it's a good idea to see your doctor. If the cough feels deep and makes you feel short of breath, it's probably more than a common cold. These may be signs of something more serious such as bronchitis or pneumonia, so call your doctor immediately. Stay home from work.


If your ear really hurts and you can't hear well, you could have an ear infection. Congestion from a common cold can also cause ear pain. In either case, you need to call your doctor to find the cause. You may need an antibiotic or pain-relieving medication for the earache.

Ear infections are not contagious. However, if you have cold symptoms along with an earache, you are likely contagious for the first two to three days.

Sinus Pain

If you have pain around the eyes, top of the forehead, the cheekbones, and even the top of your teeth, it may be a symptom of a sinus infection. Go ahead and call in sick. In addition, call your doctor. You may need an antibiotic or other treatment to relieve your sinus pain and symptoms. The next day, you'll probably be able to go to work as sinus infections aren't typically contagious.


If you wake up with a headache, it may be a cold, especially if you have other symptoms such as sneezing, nasal congestion, and body aches. In that case, you may need to stay home a day or two while you're most contagious and feel the worst.

But if you have a headache and can't tolerate noise or light, you may have a migraine and shouldn't be at work. If you have recurring headaches and haven't seen a doctor, make an appointment. A doctor can assess the cause of your headache. There's no point in suffering with them. There are drugs you can take for migraines and other chronic headaches that start working within the hour and shorten the migraine's duration.


If your eye or eyes are red with creamy white or yellow stuff in the corners and your eyelashes are getting matted, you probably have pinkeye. Pinkeye is highly contagious, so don't go to work. Call your doctor to determine whether you need an antibiotic for your infected eyes. Pinkeye can be viral or bacterial -- antibiotics can help if it's bacterial. Make sure to wash your hands frequently to avoid infecting anyone else.

Caring for Someone Who Is Sick

Once your cold symptoms resolve, you may find that you're caring for another family member or friend with a cold. It's important to know how to care for someone who has a contagious infection. Controlling contagious illnesses can be tricky. You may not realize someone's sick until that person has symptoms -- which means you may be exposed to the viral or bacterial infection without knowing it. There are ways to protect yourself from illness.

WebMD Medical Reference



  1. MedicineNet


Medically reviewed by John A. Daller, MD; American Board of Surgery with subspecialty certification in surgical critical care June 21, 2017


Sharon Horesh, MD, instructor of clinical medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta.

Nathan Segall, MD, allergy specialist, Atlanta. American Academy of Dermatology web site.

WebMD does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information