When Should You Go Back to Work After Being Sick?

You should go back to work after being sick when you are not contagious, the time of which varies depending on the illness (see below). You should also wait to return to work after being sick until you are feeling well enough to commute and operate machinery safely, and to think clearly enough to make important decisions. 

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are realizing how important it is to self-isolate when sick. Germs spread easily and when they do, the consequences heaped upon others is not only unfair, but unsafe. For these reasons (and more that are listed below), just stay home if you’re not feeling well.

3 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Go to Work When Sick

If you’re wondering whether you should go back to work while sick, please take into account the three reasons why you should not:

1. Community Spread.

Infectious diseases can spread like wildfire. Any time your germs come into contact with people, there is a real risk of others getting sick as well. The best way of preventing this from happening is to isolate yourself, wear a mask, and wash your hands.

2. Hindered Ability.

Being sick, especially if you are on certain medications, can have a negative (and sometimes dangerous) impact on how well you can do your work. Some medications make you drowsy or slow down your brain’s reaction times. This can lead to poor decision making and the inability to operate vehicles, machinery, and tools safely.

3. Longer Recovery Time.

Rest is a key ingredient for recovering from illness. Your body’s immune system relies on sleep to boost its ability to make white blood cells that attack viruses and bacteria. Also, the relaxation and slower breathing that accompanies sleep reduces inflammation, the lower demand for calories allows your body to recharge, and the demands on your brain are reduced which puts you in a more positive mood. All of this helps you heal faster than if you were to run yourself constantly into the ground.

Incubation Periods, Contagious Periods, and Recovery Periods

There is a lot of unknown information surrounding the periods of incubation, contagion, and recovery. Let’s dive into each and clear up some of the confusion.


An incubation period is the time between disease exposure and when symptoms begin. If the incubation period has passed and you did not get sick, either you were not infected or your antibodies fought off the infection. Knowing the incubation period for some common illnesses can help you know if you’re at risk of getting sick. It will also help you narrow down when/where/how you got infected. If you think you may be infected, practice social distancing during this time. It will decrease the risk of spread because you may be contagious before you feel any symptoms.

Here are the incubation periods for common illnesses:

• Bronchitis: 4-6 days

• Common cold: 2-3 days usually, but up to 7 days

COVID-19: 5-6 days usually, but can range from 1-14 days

• Diarrhea (bacterial): 1-5 days

• Influenza: 1-4 days

• Pink eye (bacterial): 2-7 days

• RSV: 2-8 days

• Strep throat: 2-5 days

• Vomiting (viral): 2-5 days

• Walking pneumonia: 1-4 weeks 


A contagious period is the time during which an infected person can infect others. Generally, you will need to stay home from work until you haven’t had a fever for 12 hours without taking a fever-reducing medication, and you feel well enough to return.

Here are more specific contagious periods for common illnesses:

• Bronchitis: Onset of cough through 7 days

• Common cold: Onset of runny nose until fever is gone

COVID-19: Limited data, but most likely during the 48 hours before symptoms appear and up to 8 days after feeling better 

• Diarrhea (bacterial): Until stools are no longer loose

• Influenza: Onset of symptoms until fever is gone for 24 hours without medication

• Pink eye (bacterial): Onset of pus until 1 day on antibiotic drops

RSV: 3-8 days usually, but up to 4 weeks

• Strep throat: Onset of sore throat until after being on antibiotics for 24 hours

• Vomiting (viral): Until vomiting stops

Walking pneumonia: Up to 10 days


A recovery period (sometimes called convalescence) is the time it takes to regain health and strength once you’ve become ill. You may still be contagious during this period.

Here are the recovery periods for common illnesses:

Bronchitis: 1-4 weeks

Common cold: 7-10 days, but up to 18 days for a lingering cough

COVID-19: 2-6 weeks

Diarrhea (bacterial): 2-3 days

Influenza: 1-2 weeks

Pink eye (bacterial): 2-5 days usually, up to 2 weeks

RSV: 1-2 weeks, with lingering wheezing

Strep throat: Up to 1 week after starting antibiotics

Vomiting (viral): 1-3 days usually, up to 10 days

Walking pneumonia: 1 week usually, up to 6 weeks

Note that these three periods often overlap in time. That’s why it’s so important to practice good hygiene, at all times.

How Long Viruses Live On Surfaces

Viruses are commonly spread from a sick person via touched surfaces that have been sneezed or coughed on, or by breathing infected air. A cough can spread as far as 6 meters (almost 20 feet) and a sneeze can travel 8 meters (26 feet). According to BBC Science Focus, “These droplets stay suspended in the air for up to 10 minutes.”

The Mayo Clinic says, “Viruses generally remain active longer on stainless steel, plastic, and similar hard surfaces than on fabric and other soft surfaces. Other factors, such as the amount of viruses deposited on a surface and the temperature and humidity of the environment, also determine how long cold and flu viruses stay active outside the body.” However, personal contact (such as shaking the hand of an infected person) is the most common way a virus spreads. 

Here is a breakdown of how long some of the most common viruses can live outside the body:

• The common cold virus can survive on hard surfaces for several days, but they usually can’t cause infections after 24 hours. If the virus is on your hands, it can still be infectious for a few minutes, up to an hour. 

• RSV can survive on hard surfaces for up to 6 hours, on soft surfaces for 30-45 minutes, and on skin for up to 20 minutes.

• The influenza virus can survive on hard surfaces for 24 hours, on soft surfaces for 15 minutes, and on hands for 5 minutes. However, it can survive in the air for at least several hours. 

• The most common viruses that cause vomiting and diarrhea can last for a few days up to a few weeks on hard surfaces.


With the above information, it should be more clear when you should go back to work after being sick. If you are self-isolating due to being sick or to help combat the pandemic, learn the best practices for remote employees during the COVID-19 quarantine.

Are you struggling to get work done at home, but your office is still closed? Rent a temporary office space!


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