6 Things to Have on Hand When You’re Sick at Work

6 Things to Have on Hand When You're Sick at WorkWe all know we shouldn’t go to work when we’re sick. But whether you’re a presidential candidate or have a more typical career, most of us do it anyway. (Note: Here I’m referring to the average Corporette reader with full-time benefits; the millions of Americans without paid sick leave don’t have much choice about whether to stay home and rest.) Maybe you have a conference or special event to attend, a big scheduled presentation to give, or a meeting to lead, and you just can’t avoid being sick at work. We haven’t talked about tips for going to work while ill in quite a while, so we thought it was time to revisit. (Disclaimer: Of course, please don’t take this post as medical advice.)

In the past we’ve also talked about shaking hands when you’re sick, what to do when you think you’re coming down with a cold and ways to get over a coldhow to deal with many medical appointments, and how to explain an embarrassing illness.

First of all, here’s some information from an actual doctor on determining whether you’re too sick for the office. But if you need to go in no matter what, here are six things that can help you handle being sick at work (besides the age-old advice our mothers have given us since we were kids):

1. Afrin: I love the OTC nasal spray Afrin for “emergency” situations. If you’re congested and constantly wiping and blowing your nose, it will miraculously help you breathe through your nose again (at least for several hours) — very helpful if you have to do a lot of talking at work. The main ingredient is oxymetazoline hydrochloride, which narrows blood vessels in your nose (kind of scary, right?) and should NOT be used for more than three days, so follow package directions carefully.

2. Zicam: Zicam offers many “cold shortening” products that are “[c]linically proven to shorten a cold when taken at the first sign,” including nasal sprays and swabs, quick-dissolving tablets, lozenges, and more. (See the bottom of this page to read which ones have “clinical results.”) It also offers nasal congestion and allergy products. Zicam is known for its zinc products (which caused a safety scare in 2009), but not all of its products contain zinc. However, they are homeopathic, so … well, they’re not going to do much. However, the placebo effect can work even when you know it’s a placebo (!), so these are worth a try.

3. Saline nasal spray: This kind of product isn’t as fancy as #1 or #2 above, and it might not work as well as #1, but unlike Afrin nasal spray and some of Zicam’s nasal sprays, there’s no limit (for safety reasons) on the number of times a day or number of days in a row that you can use it. It can help loosen up your congestion, even though the effects don’t last very long.

4. Tissues with lotion: I highly recommend Puffs Plus Lotion from personal experience. They make a huge difference when you’re stuck wiping and blowing your nose all day — they’re soothing and can reduce some of the redness and chapped skin that regular tissues can cause. There are also tissues with lotion and “the scent of” Vicks, but beware — they have a very strong smell (because, hello, Vicks).

5. Glasses: If you wear contacts, you should own a pair of a pair of glasses that you like enough to wear around the office so that you have the option when you’re sick at work — you can leave your eyes alone, and the frames will bring some color to your face (in addition to the red nose, that is). If you’re a frequent makeup-wearer but skip your routine when you don’t feel well, they’ll also camouflage that a bit. (When you clean them, don’t bother using the lotion tissues mentioned above, because you’ll just smear the lenses.)

6. Hand sanitizer: Your coworkers will not be thrilled when they see you sick at work, but if you have to interact with them up close, offer some hand sanitizer or hand wipes to earn back a bit of goodwill. If you want something that smells better than the old standby Purell, try Everyone brand sprays — the coconut-lemon scent is surprisingly pleasant (although not everyone in my family agrees). Note: The FDA, which just banned 19 chemicals in hand soaps and body washes, is also looking into the possible health risks of hand sanitizers, especially for pregnant women and children. Sigh.

Which products don’t help when you’re sick at work? A lot of people swear by vitamin C (including Emergen-C), but according to the Mayo Clinic, vitamin C isn’t likely to prevent colds — or shorten them either (unless taken “before the onset of cold symptoms,” which … I’m not a germ psychic). The same Mayo Clinic article has some more encouraging but still lukewarm praise for echinacea. (They also advise against drinking coffee, soda, and energy drinks when you’re sick.) Vitamin B12 doesn’t seem to hold great promise either.

Have you had to go to work when you were sick? Which products or items helped you, and which didn’t? Do you have certain rules about being sick at work, for example, staying home if you have a fever or any, er, digestive issues? Do your coworkers tend to come to work when they’re sick? Is it frowned on or seen as a sign of a hard worker? How much paid sick time does your employer provide, and is it enough?

 If you have to work while sick it stinks -- Corporette rounded up some products to make it better.



  1. heatherskib :

    Earlier this year I came down with the flu right before I went to an out of town Warrior Dash (Kick off was at 7, I woke up at 2 with my throat on fire), then had to work in the area auditing inventories for the next 3 days. It was horrible. I got stopped for speeding on my way back home (quiet back road, no traffic, except that one state trooper, and I was only 5 over) I swear that officer took one look at me and ran back to his patrol car while shouting a verbal warning.

    My suggestions- avoid human contact as much as possible. Do not shake hands. People will understand and appreciate! I swear by hot toddies when you’re off the clock, and steam showers. I keep the vicks tissues and hand sanitizer at my desk year round. I keep saline mist and ibuprofen, and if my throat is raw cough drops.

  2. Hey! Where’d the submit a reader question feature go? When I click on Contact, it doesn’t have the form any more!!

  3. Sloan Sabbith :

    Wear a mask at work. Switch them out every hour or when they get wet. If you have to come, don’t put others at risk. And don’t come unless you have to. Your “powering through” BS could land me in the hospital.

    • Anonymous :

      +1. Or it could mean that your coworker gets your cold or flu and then can’t see immunocompromised or elderly family members.

    • Not everyone has that option. It’s not BS – sometimes it’s a requirement of the job and could detrimentally impact your career if you stay home for a cold when you could power through.

      I really like the cold 911 tea from David’s tea – Not sure if it actually does anything but it makes me feel better!

      • Sloan Sabbith :

        Yeah, it is BS. That doesn’t mean it’s not sometimes necessary (hence why I said “don’t come unless you have to,” apparently I should have capitalized “HAVE TO”), but I assume that if it is detrimental to Sick Person’s career to stay home, it’s also detrimental to others’ careers in the office to be hospitalized due to getting a cold…. Seriously. I have a chronic illness. A simple cold for you can end up with me hospitalized; wear a mask if you HAVE to come to work so that I don’t have to wear one every day from September to March or so that I don’t end up in the hospital with an infection, pneumonia, or something else.

  4. consultant :

    If you traveled for work Mon-Thurs and were sick on Sunday (high fever etc) would you cancel the trip or go anyways? Going risks getting a whole plane of people and then your coworkers sick.

    • If I had a high fever Sunday night, I would see how I feel Monday morning, but yes…. I would cancel a trip on Monday.

    • Germ victim :

      Fellow consultant. You don’t want to get your coworkers sick. They will resent you.
      We work in a large team room with no windows. An AC came every day while sick because she likes to think of herself as a hero. She managed to get a couple people sick and we all think she is a jerk (and yes we know how much work we have to do when our dear partners overpromised).
      Our biggest client’s daughter was interning at the time and she caught whatever that girl had, she was dying. She is fine now but we now refer to the AC as typhoid Mary and no one likes her (because of many other things but oh well..)

  5. Add tea to the list for me. I always keep herbal tea on hand. It can be throat soothing, stomach soothing, and it just plain helps to keeps you hydrated.

  6. Germ victim :

    Today, my supervisor started the day by telling me how sick he felt with the sniffles and proceeded to cough his way through our 1 hour planning meeting.
    I was not thrilled. I don’t have a particular health issue but I know my immune system is drained from long nights and stress. If I have been skipping sleep then there is a reason for it and I cannot afford to get sick now. I will get behind on work but also I’m sure it would take me forever to recover as I don’t see any “slow” days going forward.
    I resent him. Would have preferred to have a conf call.
    Meanwhile, I’ll have some herbal tea.

  7. I liked your advice and comments regarding how to prepare if you must go to work when you are sick with a cold or cold like illness. I note that you researched the pros and cons and warnings and latest science news about the products that you recommended. This adds a lot of credibility to your advice and recommendations. Way too often columnists or bloggers simply recommend popular products that are being sold and recommend them without any background checks about either genuine effectiveness or side effects or collateral damage such as the dangers from overuse of antibacterial products increasing incidences of superbugs.

    An additional piece of advice I would give is for the ‘sickie’ is for them to warn all the people in the office to never touch either the mucus membrane of their noses or their eyes without first thoroughly washing their hands during their entire day they are at work with a person with a cold. Even if the sick person does not shake hands with them or cough on them cold germs can live on surfaces in the office and be transferred to the hands of co-workers and then be transferred to the parts of the body where cold germs can enter.

  8. The firm where I summered had first-aid kits with every OTC pill imaginable on every other floor, but no Kleenex. Weird stuff.

  9. Daniel Horák :

    I think workers would stay gladly at home with the cold… but their bosses won’t let them.
    After all it takes about 7 – 10 days for the cold to run its course…
    Or economical situation won’t allow it – not all jobs have paid time off.
    How often a worker has called in only to hear: “… why don’t you come in anyway?”

  10. If you have your own office, shut the door! It will at least avoid you coming into contact with random drop ins. And please just say you won’t shake someone’s hand because you don’t feel great. As someone who has been pregnant twice in recent years I appreciated people forewarning me so i could avoid shaking their hand, maybe sit a bit further down at the conference table, and be sure to wash my hands after the meeting!

  11. Anonymous :

    Clorox wipes are a must to keep in the office. When you are fighting a cold you can wipe down surfaces you have been touching in your office like keyboard, mouse, phone, door knobs, etc

Add a Comment

Thank you for commenting. On the off chance that your comment goes to moderation, note that a moderation message will only appear if you enter an email address. If you have any questions please check out our commenting policy.

work fashion blog press mentions