Before COVID-19, most people thought nothing of heading off to school or work with a stuffy nose or a slight cough. The pandemic changed all that. Although we are now in a far different place than we were during the early months of COVID, it can be hard to figure out what you’re supposed to do when the sniffling and sneezing symptoms surface at this stage of the pandemic.
“We got trained to stay home for every sign of illness during the pandemic,” Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national group that promotes solutions to chronic school absenteeism, told the New York Times recently. “We actually have to shift norms again, to being judicious and thoughtful about when we keep kids home, and only keeping them home if we think it’s truly a problem.”
Since germs don’t take a day off, the question remains: How do we define sick etiquette in 2023?
What is sick etiquette?
“Sick etiquette refers to behaviors among members of society meant to protect each other from contagious diseases,” Dr. Christine Eady Mann, a family physician working in urgent care in Leander, Texas, tells Yahoo Life. “It varies depending on the type of contagious disease in question. For example, diseases that are airborne require different sick etiquette than diseases that remain on surfaces or are transmitted via skin contact.”
Mann adds that when COVID initially arrived in the U.S., there was almost a “universal societal adherence” to sick etiquette, including staying home at any sign of illness and masking in public. “People were willing to take precautions to protect others from this new disease,” she says. “However, as the pandemic has continued, people are much less willing to take measures to prevent the spread of COVID if those measures are even a little inconvenient.”
Dr. Linda Yancey, an infectious-diseases specialist at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Katy, Texas, tells Yahoo Life that we’re currently in new territory. “Now that we are moving into the endemic phase of COVID, we can't send everyone home the way we did back in the early days of the pandemic,” she says. “But we shouldn't be as cavalier as we were prior to the pandemic either. We are going to have to rely on people being a little bit more vigilant with themselves and to be considerate of their co-workers.”
What to do if you’re feeling sick
If you’re feeling stuffy and sluggish or have a cough or sore throat but have yet to be diagnosed with the common cold, the flu or COVID, working remotely would still be your best bet, says Yancey. If clocking in from home is not an option, she strongly advises masking up.
“Masks absolutely work,” Yancey says. “Masking traps those big respiratory droplets so you're not sitting there spreading them throughout the office.” If wearing a form-fitting KN95 or N95 mask makes you feel even more ornery, Yancey says disposable masks are also “highly effective.”
Another sick-etiquette tip is to take lunch and coffee breaks either outside or in your car. “The goal is to avoid being unmasked in a closed indoor location,” she says.
For school-age children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends they stay home if they have symptoms of respiratory or gastrointestinal infections, such as cough, fever, sore throat, vomiting or diarrhea.
Both Yancey and Mann emphasize the importance of hand hygiene — frequently washing hands with soap and water or cleaning hands with alcohol-based antibacterial hand sanitizers — as well as coughing and sneezing into your elbow (Yancey refers to it as the “vampire sneeze”) if a tissue is not readily available.
If you or a family member is suffering from the common upper respiratory symptoms such as a runny nose or sore throat that are associated with EG.5, also known as Eris — the dominant coronavirus subvariant in the U.S., responsible for nearly 22% of cases over the last two weeks, as reported by the CDC — Yancey and Mann encourage getting tested for COVID.
In order to obtain an accurate result from an over-the-counter test, which is designed to detect viral proteins (called antigens), Yancey explains it’s imperative to swab yourself either once symptoms surface or three to five days after initial exposure to avoid receiving a false negative.
The bottom line
With COVID cases rising again, people who are feeling under the weather should resume — or continue if they never stopped — some of the key precautions they took at the beginning of the pandemic, says Mann. “These steps include avoiding public spaces when sick, having groceries delivered and wearing masks,” she says.
Yancey concurs: “Overall, I would urge everyone to err on the side of caution.” If you wake up with a stuffed-up nose and scratchy throat, experts recommend taking an old-fashioned sick day, if possible.
“Americans are terrible at taking time off,” Yancey notes. “When you are sick, you will get better faster if you rest. So if you have the opportunity, stay on the couch for a day or two and give your body the chance to recuperate.”