When to Take a Sick Day

You might want to be a hero and trudge into work when you’re sick. But some days, you really need to stay home. Between getting your coworkers sick and making yourself sicker, traipsing around when your body desperately needs care is an awful idea. So is “staying home” only to work: no fielding emails from bed, attending meetings over the phone, and running yourself ragged even when you don’t leave the house. That’s no way to heal.

Here’s how to make the most of your sick day — from what to eat to how to spend your time — so you’re back in fighting form as soon as possible.

Just Stay Home

Just Stay Home

You might want to be a hero and trudge into work when you’re sick. But some days, you really need to stay home. Between getting your coworkers sick and making yourself sicker, traipsing around when your body desperately needs care is an awful idea. So is “staying home” only to work: no fielding emails from bed, attending meetings over the phone, and running yourself ragged even when you don’t leave the house. That’s no way to heal.

Here’s how to make the most of your sick day — from what to eat to how to spend your time — so you’re back in fighting form as soon as possible.

Pay Attention to Your Symptoms

Pay Attention to Your Symptoms

Figuring out whether you’re contagious isn’t clear without a blood test. But Dr. Kristi Wrightson, ND, RD, founder of Nest Integrative Medicine Spa, says that if you have “body aches (including headaches), fever, or respiratory symptoms such as a cough that are moderate to severe, then it is likely that you are contagious,” and the virus could be spreadable for up to seven days. As far as bacterial infections go, antibiotics take 36 to 48 hours to kick in, and during that time you’re still contagious.

If contaminating your coworkers isn’t your concern (though it should be), at the very least consider how watery eyes, constant coughing, and an overwhelming desire to sleep will impact your productivity. If you can’t make it through a meeting without a major coughing fit and everybody insists on sitting on the other side of the room, go home.

Heal With Tons of Water (and Food)

Heal With Tons of Water (and Food)

The one thing you can’t get lazy about is hydration. It’s not just conventional wisdom: Dr. Aunna Pourang MD, FABFM, a family physician in integrative medicine at Lotus East-West Medical Center says that dehydration only worsens your sticky mucus congestion. Water in large quantities is best, and herbal (not caffeinated) tea is also great. You can try adding ginger and turmeric to your tea, too, since both have been shown to boost immunity, Pourang says. And adding honey will tame your sore throat.

If you can stomach food, Pourang recommends cooked and easily digestible foods, like soups (not just chicken broth, but vegetable purees, too). Wrightson suggests “tame foods” like pears, brown rice, and sweet potatoes, so you can “allow the digestive system a break from its typical job of breaking down bigger proteins and fats.” Boost your immune system with antioxidant- and vitamin C-rich foods like berries, oranges, and colorful vegetables like carrots, winter squash, beets, rainbow chard, and red or yellow peppers.

What foods should you avoid? Pourang says to stay away from foods high in fat, sugar (“Infections love sugar!”), and dairy, which can increase mucus congestion. Also try to avoid raw foods when you can. Cook those vegetables before you eat them.

Stay in Bed

Stay in Bed

The short answer to “What should I do on my sick day?” is this: As little as possible. Rest, rest, rest, says Pourang, because “your body needs to use its resources to fight off the infection.” That means no cleaning your house or getting errands done — this is a day to let your body heal, not to cross things off your list.

But if you feel up to it, “a short walk outside can help move the lymphatic system (the disease-fighting portion of your body),” says Dr. Michael J. Glickert, director of clinic operations at The Vanguard Clinic. Don’t overdo it: This should be a leisurely stroll, not a power walk. And bundle up, because exposure to cold air can weaken the immune response in your nasal passages, Pourang says.

Pro tip: Watch a comedy. “Laughing can boost your mood and make your symptoms feel more manageable,” says Dr. Beth McQuiston, MD, RD, medical director at Abbott.

Eliminate Stress by Unplugging

Eliminate Stress by Unplugging

Cutting out all your stress may be easier said than done — especially in the midst of an unexpected day off — but it’s irrefutable that stress will slow your healing. In fact, stress might be what made you sick in the first place, since it causes your cortisol levels to rise, which suppresses your immune system, says Glickert.

So if you can, turn off your work email. You could spend all day stressing from your bed, trying to keep up with work, only to end up having to stay home for a day (or more) longer. Or you could commit to taking care of yourself and get healthy faster.

Don’t Slack On Mental Health Days

Don’t Slack On Mental Health Days

Speaking of stress, having a cold or flu isn’t the only time you need to take a sick day. We all need mental health days, too. “Most people are really good at taking care of their responsibilities and making sure the people they love are being attended to, cared for, supported and nurtured,” says psychologist and marriage and family therapist Lourdes Viado, PhD, MFT. “We usually have a harder time doing this for ourselves.”

Learn to make yourself a priority, and pay attention to your stress levels. This isn’t about being indulgent, because prolonged stress causes a bunch of health problems. An ideal mental health day is one with as few obligations as possible, and Viado says to limit social media, texts, emails, and phone calls. Don’t schedule yourself to death — instead, “leave your time and space open to unfold,” she says.

If you want to spend the whole day watching Netflix, do it. Viado suggests doing yoga, getting a massage, spending some time outside, practicing gratitude, or seeing friends who “inspire and uplift you.”

When You Need More Help

When You Need More Help

While not every illness requires a doctor’s visit, you should keep an eye on your symptoms to make sure you don’t need medical intervention. Wrightson says that “severe body pains, especially chest pain, a fever over 102 degrees Fahrenheit, cough with colored phlegm, swollen joints, or a rash on your skin or in your mouth” warrant a visit.

Pourang adds to that list nausea, vomiting or diarrhea for more than a day, fevers or chills lasting more than two or three days, shortness of breath, incapacitating headaches, or any symptoms that last more than a week. And any time you see blood coming out of anything but a minor cut, get to a doctor.

If you “just ‘know’ something isn’t right, stick with your gut feeling and don’t delay” seeing a doctor, says Glickert. Trust that intuition — doctor’s orders.

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