We’ve reached that time of year—the (later than usual) onset of flu season—when any sign of sickness also raises another question: Is it the flu or just a common cold?
There are clues that point toward one illness or the other, of course. A flu usually arrives suddenly, and typically includes a fever and muscle aches. A cold, on the other hand, creeps up on you. It often sends an early envoy, like the telltale sensation of a shard of glass in your throat, which may last for a day before other symptoms arise.
You’d also want to treat the two conditions differently. Should it feel like the flu, call your doctor, who might prescribe an antiviral medication; choose over-the-counter remedies, hot teas, and soups when you suspect a cold.
All of that said, there’s one place in which the answer to this question matters not in the slightest, and that’s at work. When it comes to your colleagues’ health, and the wellbeing of your company or your fellow commuters, no one cares whether you have a serious flu or a less menacing cold; they simply would prefer that you stay away.
How long you keep yourself quarantined should not be dictated by your mood, degree of cabin fever, or even your symptoms. As Quartz at Work reported during last year’s flu season, if it indeed is a flu, you will probably be contagious for seven days, though your symptoms may disappear in less time.
Another reason to keep to yourself: With more offices featuring fewer walls or cubicles, your germs produced by the odd post-illness sneeze or cough would be able travel unencumbered much further than you’d imagine. An MIT professor has discovered that when you sneeze, the droplets you expel ride clouds of gas out and beyond the few feet you’d expect them to travel. They could make it as far as 26 feet.
To date, only 10 US states have enacted paid sick leave laws, and there is no federal requirement that would force their existence. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, paid sick leave is available to only 62% of workers at small companies.
The rates improve with the scale of the workplace, with 79% of workers at medium-size businesses (100 to 499 employees) and 87% of workers at large companies (500 or more employees) offered paid sick leave. But that still means millions of Americans without the perk must weigh the benefits of taking time off to recover from an illness against the penalty of a smaller paycheck. You might consider this more reason to take advantage of paid sick days if you have them, to protect all the people you’d run into during your commute who don’t have the same luxury.
On a positive note, this year’s flu season is expected to be less deadly than 2018’s, since the strain that’s dominated so far is not as dangerous by comparison. Once again, though, this piece of trivia will mean little to your peers if you show up looking pale and sickly.