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3 Signs You Might Need to Take a Sick Day

Emily Turner

When you wake up with a runny nose or scratchy throat, your brain immediately starts working through some mental calculus. Is this just allergies — or do I have something contagious? Do I need to cancel that meeting this afternoon? Just how sick am I?

The growing number of employees who work remotely also have another question to consider: am I sick enough to actually take a sick day — or can I just work from my bed? According to a survey of 2,000 working adults conducted by telehealth provider MDLIVE, 51 percent of fully remote workers felt more stressed and anxious about taking a sick day in 2021 than in prior years.

Even if you’re able to do your job from anywhere, Vontrelle Roundtree, MD, MPT, interim chief medical officer at MDLIVE, says there’s still value in taking time to rest when you feel sick — and knowing when to see a doctor. “Taking a sick day really revolves around the broader need to unplug to take care of yourself and recover,” she says. “Being sick doesn’t just take a physical toll on you. It can also be mentally exhausting.”

When you do begin to feel one of the telltale symptoms that accompany colds and flu — think stuffy nose, scratchy throat, fever, and coughing — it’s important to know when to call out sick and seek medical care. “Getting seen quickly by a doctor when symptoms start to come on may be the difference between a quicker recovery and being laid up for a longer period of time,” Dr. Roundtree says. Pay attention to these three often overlooked symptoms, in particular.

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Sore Throat

One of the first — and sometimes most painful — signs that you are coming down with something is the dreaded sore throat. Pain when swallowing and hoarseness may indicate a regular run-of-the-mill cold is kicking in, so resting up is in order. In general, staying home, resting and avoiding contact with others is the best way to deal with the cold or flu,” Dr. Roundtree explains. If additional symptoms like bad breath, a rash, or difficulty swallowing occur with a sore throat, see a doctor — they could be signs of a more severe illness.


It might seem gross, but we all produce mucus — and when you’re sick, it can be a helpful warning symptom. If your mucus is white, it’s likely a sign of some congestion or a nasal cold. However, when your mucus turns yellow, that might indicate the presence of infection-fighting cells. If you see yellow mucus, you might want to call out sick and see a doctor to get ahead of whatever your body is fighting off. If your mucus is green, your body might be in the thick of an infection and you should definitely see a doctor.


Nothing interrupts a virtual meeting quite like the sound of a cough. It’s perhaps the most common symptom during cold and flu season, and could be a sign of the common cold, the flu, or something much more serious like pneumonia. A mild to moderate hacking cough without a fever or headache, while disruptive to your workday, may indicate you’re battling a cold. If you have a cough as well as a fever and headache, you may have the flu, so you should call out sick and see a doctor. If the cough progresses to include some shortness of breath or chest pain when you breathe deeply, that could be much more serious, and you might need to seek medical attention immediately.

There are some preventive steps you can take to give yourself the best chance of staying healthy this cold and flu season. First, Dr. Roundtree recommends that all adults stay up to date on their vaccines, including both the flu shot and COVID-19 boosters.

Another way to prepare for cold and flu season is by registering with your telehealth provider before you get sick. Most people who have health insurance through their employer have a telehealth option through providers like MDLIVE. Creating an account with MDLIVE takes just a few minutes and some basic information. “You never know when you’ll get sick, but you can create your account in advance so that, when you do get sick, you can see a doctor quickly, usually within minutes,” Dr. Roundtree says. MDLIVE’s board-certified physicians can see you right from your home, and if necessary, write you a prescription and send it directly to your nearest pharmacy. “At the onset of either cold or flu symptoms, see an MDLIVE board-certified doctor for fast and convenient care by phone or video,” Dr. Roundtree says. “You should seek medical attention immediately if your symptoms get worse or fail to improve, you have a persistent fever, and/or experience difficulty breathing.”

Finally, if you do feel unwell, consider taking a sick day to rest and recuperate. “While it can be difficult to fully unplug, trying to recover while attempting to answer emails, participate in video calls, and keep up with the typical workday responsibilities isn’t good for anyone,” Dr. Roundtree says. Staying home when you’re sick not only gives your body the rest it needs, but also protects your coworkers from your germs. As Dr. Roundtree says, “when in doubt, call out.”

This article is for informational purposes only. Consult your doctor if you feel unwell.

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