It all seems to start with the innocuous sneeze. “It’s just allergies,” your employee says. Soon, he’s complaining about a sore throat. Within a few days, the whole office has become afflicted by these so-called “allergies,” and your department’s productivity has hit a new low.
Here’s how you can spot the signs of an impending epidemic and help an employee make the right decision about coming into work.
The Five Most Common Signs of Illness
- Red eyes
- Frequent pill usage
- Frequent bathroom breaks
Most people still try to work through their minor illnesses, the most common being colds and the flu. These infectious diseases are contagious at varying rates. Some viruses are only 20% contagious, meaning of 100 people exposed, 20 will get sick. Other viruses are as high as 80% contagious, such as the adenovirus, which causes such things as pink eye (conjunctivitis).
Since pink eye only causes irritation to the eyes, many do not even know they have it. A person may show up to work and others ask her, “What happened to your eye?” She then looks in a mirror and discovers her illness.
The Different Afflictions of the Same Virus
The issue with the pink eye virus is that it’s very contagious, more so than a cold or flu virus, and it can cause many different illnesses, depending on the location of infection. If the virus gets in the throat, it can develop into an illness similar to strep throat, which can cause painful swallowing.
If it infects the upper airways, it can cause an illness similar to croup, or even pertussis, which is a severe, hacking cough that may last for more than two months.
If it gets in the lungs, it can cause a viral pneumonia. Since it isn’t predictable and is very contagious, when you encounter an employee with pink eye, he should take a couple of days off.
There are other symptoms for non-contagious afflictions that may disguise themselves as contagious illnesses. Hay fever, or allergic rhinitis, can share many symptoms with upper respiratory infections. A person may have nasal congestion, red eyes, swelling, cough, and lung congestion. Although this appears to be contagious, it isn’t. Also, other non-contagious illnesses, such as episcleritis (inflammation or irritation on part of the eye), can mask themselves as pink eye.
Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition that may be chronic, and it produces the same symptoms as an intestinal flu, such as diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, and cramping. This syndrome is not contagious because it is an internal reaction or response from the immune system.
You should be careful not to send people home who don’t have contagious diseases. However, asking questions about their health history may be considered prying. A simple question, such as, “Are you feeling alright?” may stimulate a response that helps you make a decision, or helps your employee decide not to work if she’s ill.
How to Tell the Difference
A fever is the simplest way to tell the difference between an acute illness with an infectious agent, but it’s not foolproof. Some people never have fevers, and others develop fevers with the slightest inflammation. Nevertheless, taking individuals’ differences into account, a fever is a good indicator of an infectious disease.
One way to tell the difference between an acute infection and a reactive condition is by the timing. Someone who gets a runny nose every spring is likely to have allergies and doesn’t require quarantine. Those illnesses that last more than a couple of weeks are, more than likely, not contagious.
Another common mistake is when you send an employee home because of the color of his secretions. Clear secretions are not predictive of lack of infection, nor does yellow or green mucous indicate infection. In fact, by the first week into an illness, the person stops shedding viruses, even though the symptoms may persist for another week or more. The most contagious part of an illness is from a couple of days before symptoms start to a few days after. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to control the spread of illness.
In spite of all this, you can prevent illness. Studies show that by taking something as simple as vitamin D and specific zinc tablets, you may be able to prevent the spread, or shorten the time span, of an illness. Employees are obviously the most important part of any business, so making sure that you spot the signs of contagious illness and recognize seasonal and permanent ailments can help you understand when an employee is safe to stay at work or when it’s better to send him home. It’s always better to be down one man than suffering an outage of ten!
Dr. Scott Saunders is the Health and Nutrition Advisor of Barton Publishing, a company that promotes natural health through teaching people how to cure themselves using alternative home remedies instead of expensive and harmful prescription drugs. Saunders is the director of The Integrative Medicine Center of Santa Barbara, which balances conventional medicine with alternative healing modalities to achieve optimal wellness.