Do you need to take a sick day?
The simplest way to avoid needing to take a sick day is obvious: Stay healthy. But when the first crisp morning of fall signals the beginning of cold and flu season, staying healthy can become difficult.

The first thing you should know is that the best way to prevent the spread of cold and flu is with frequent and proper hand washing. Be vigilant! Make sure to rub your hands with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds to help to slough germs off the skin.

In addition to hand washing, you can also get a flu shot to prevent influenza—which is especially important this year with the threat of swine flu. Flu activity in the United States generally peaks between late December and early March, so the CDC recommends getting a flu shot in October or November. Within two weeks of getting a flu shot, antibodies develop in your body and provide protection against flu symptoms.

During the peak of cold and flu season, it can be hard to differentiate between symptoms that necessitate sick days and doctor visits and milder symptoms that aren't contagious.

Spot the severity of five common cold and flu symptoms.
If you are sniffling, feeling achy and tired and have a fever, you may be coming down with the common cold or the flu. You are most contagious during the first 24 hours through the first few days of catching a cold virus, and you will feel miserable. With a cold, you will not get much work done, and you'll get well faster if you get some rest. Don't be generous with your germs. Keep your cold to yourself, and stay home!

If you are sniffling but not achy or feverish and feel fine otherwise, you probably have allergies. With allergies, you can go to work. You might want to see an allergist to find out what's triggering your allergies.

How bad is your sore throat?
If you've got a tickle in the back of your throat or it feels like you have postnasal drip, your cough is probably from allergies or the common cold. But unless you've got other common cold symptoms such as aches or fever, get dressed and go to work!

If you've had a cold for a few days and are now coughing up darker yellow mucus, it's still probably just a cold. If you continue to cough up dark mucus after a week, it's a good idea to see your doctor. If the cough feels deep and makes you feel short of breath, it's probably more than a common cold. These may be signs of something more serious such as bronchitis or pneumonia. Call your doctor immediately and stay home from work.

If you have pain around the eyes, top of the forehead, the cheekbones and even the top of your teeth, it may be a symptom of a sinus infection. Go ahead and call in sick. Then call your doctor. You may need an antibiotic or other treatment to relieve your sinus pain and symptoms.

What's causing those aches and chills?
If your clothes are getting drenched, you most likely have a fever. Drink more fluids and consider seeing your doctor, especially if your fever is over 102 degrees. That could be a sign that you have the flu. Stay away from work—and friends—until you feel better.

If you have a fever plus white patches on your tonsils, you may have strep throat, which is highly contagious and may require antibiotics. Call your doctor immediately.

If you wake up with a headache, it may be a cold, especially if you have other symptoms such as sneezing, nasal congestion and body aches. In that case, you may need to stay home a day or two while you're most contagious and feel the worst.

But if you have a headache and can't tolerate noise or light, you may have a migraine and shouldn't be at work. If you have recurring headaches and haven't seen a doctor, make an appointment. A doctor can assess the cause of your headache. There's no point in suffering; there are drugs you can take for migraines and other chronic headaches that start working within the hour and shorten the migraine's duration.

Is that an ear infection?
If your ear really hurts and you can't hear well, you could have an ear infection. Congestion from a common cold can also cause ear pain. In either case, you need to call your doctor to find the cause of your ear pain.

You may need an antibiotic or pain-relieving medication for the earache. Ear infections are not contagious. However, if you have cold symptoms along with an earache, you are likely contagious for the first two to three days.

Be on the lookout for pinkeye.
If your eye or eyes are red with creamy white or yellow stuff in the corners, and your eyelashes are getting matted, you probably have pinkeye.

Pinkeye is highly contagious, so don't go to work. Call your doctor to determine whether you need an antibiotic for your infected eyes. Pinkeye can be viral or bacterial—antibiotics can help if it's bacterial. Make sure to wash your hands frequently to avoid infecting anyone else.

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