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I have a cold. Should I go to work anyway?

The question

I have a cold. Should I stay home even though I feel well enough to work?

The answer

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Because of multiple demands and busy work and personal lives, most people would answer "no" regardless of how they are feeling. In some cases, this may be appropriate - but not always.

Colds can cause symptoms such as a stuffy or runny nose, cough, low energy, decreased appetite and, on occasion, a low-grade fever. The vast majority of colds are caused by viruses and on average will resolve in seven to 10 days without the need for antibiotics.

There are several things to consider when deciding whether you should stay home from work. First, it is important to consider whether you are contagious. The challenge with this is that you may be contagious before you even realize you are sick. If you recognize the symptoms early enough, you may be able to avoid putting your co-workers at risk; usually by the time symptoms arise, however, you are no longer contagious.

In general, colds do not cause a great deal of harm. But if you work with the elderly, infants or people with compromised immune systems, consider staying home to prevent spreading the infection to them. In these vulnerable populations, even minor illnesses can lead to serious health issues.

Another thing to consider is how productive you will be. Certain symptoms, such as an uncontrollable cough or low energy, can make working difficult and may put yourself and others at risk. All to often, people will push themselves, which can actually delay recovery. And while there are an abundance of over-the-counter medications used for symptomatic relief of symptoms, be aware that some may effect your level of alertness - a danger in workplaces where you need to be alert to safely conduct your job.

Ultimately, the decision to stay home or go to work is a personal choice. The effect of illness upon each individual is unique. Know your body and your symptoms and use your own judgment to decide what is best for you and those around you. If cold symptoms persist or worsen and you feel that you need to be away from work for longer than a few days, it may be helpful to visit your doctor. Regardless of whether you decide to stay home or go to work, the best options for treatment and prevention of colds are rest, increasing fluid intake and washing your hands regularly to protect yourself and prevent spreading it to others.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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Read more Q&As from Dr. Wijayasinghe.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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