Is It Rude to Lie About Being Sick? And 21 Other Illness Etiquette Questions

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The pandemic changed everything, including the social norms around how to behave when you’re sick, afraid you may be sick, or want to avoid getting sick. Some of the same, long-held courtesies pre-2020 still apply — sneeze into your elbow or a tissue; don’t show up at a social event with a clearly contagious flu — but after four years of rapid testing, mask wearing, and stop-the-spreading, there are some new rules of conduct too. And since there’s no Miss Manners column designed to help you parse this updated landscape of acceptable behavior, we attempted to spell out what’s considered polite or rude when it comes to sick season in 2024.

To come up with these points of decorum, we asked coworkers to weigh in on real-life scenarios. We couldn’t address every possible situation you might encounter these days. Still, we attempted to give guidance for the most common experiences people find themselves in. We also ran the results of our mini-survey by POPSUGAR advisory board member Andrea C. Love, PhD, an immunologist and microbiologist, the cohost of “The Unbiased Science Podcast,” and a senior content creator for The Unbiased Science Institute, who helped flag anything that clashed with the actual best practices of hygiene and safety.

Together, we were able to inscribe 22 rules of modern-day sickness etiquette. Some of it may seem like common sense; others may be controversial. But that’s to be expected — what etiquette guide doesn’t inspire some strong opinions?


Sickness Etiquette In Social Situations

General rules of thumb for when you’re just starting to feel sick

  • When you have imminent plans to meet up with a friend and you’re feeling a little under the weather, it’s polite to let the friend know ASAP and let them decide if they’re still down to see you — even if you’re eager to keep your plans.
  • If you begin feeling sick soon after spending time with a friend, text them to let them know.
  • It’s courteous to take an at-home COVID test so you can tell people you’ve recently seen whether or not they’re at risk of COVID specifically. It’s also worth knowing the best timing for at-home tests, Dr. Love notes. The current CDC guidance for people who feel sick: take an at-home test as soon as you develop any COVID symptoms (sore throat, congestion, runny nose, cough). If you’re negative, re-test 48 hours later.

General rule of thumb when you’re getting over an illness

  • When you’re recovering from an illness, you should give anyone you’re planning to see in person the heads up that you’ve been sick until you’re totally symptom-free, even if you feel confident you’re no longer contagious.

General rule of thumb for when you sound sick

  • When you know you don’t have a contagious illness but you sound sick (due to seasonal allergies, for instance), it’s polite to explain to people you have to see in person that you’re not at risk of getting them sick.

General rule of thumb for when you’ve been exposed to COVID

  • When someone you hung out with a day or two ago texts you to tell you they just tested positive for COVID, you should still tell anyone you’re planning to see in the next few days, and anyone you saw since seeing your friend, that you’ve been exposed — whether or not you currently have symptoms. Also consider taking an at-home test, even if you don’t feel under the weather. The CDC recommends testing yourself five full days after being exposed to COVID. If you’re negative, re-test 48 hours later, and if that’s negative too, repeat once more (for a total of three self-tests).

General rules of thumb for when you’re trying to avoid getting sick

  • It’s OK to ask friends you’ll be seeing if they feel at all under the weather before meeting up, especially if you have a big event coming up that you can’t be sick for, or a preexisting health condition. (You don’t have to explain why you’re asking.)
  • When your friend offers you a bite of their meal or a sip of their drink, it’s not rude to ask if they’re sick before accepting. “There are other things besides respiratory illnesses that can be transmitted too,” Dr. Love says.
  • If you’re hosting an event such as a wedding or kid’s birthday party, it’s fine to include a line on the invite that say something to the effect of: “If you’re feeling under the weather, please stay home.”

Masking Etiquette

General rule of thumb on explaining your mask

  • You never have to explain why you’re wearing a mask — whether it’s because you’re trying to avoid getting sick yourself or because you’re feeling a bit under the weather and you’re trying to avoid passing along germs to others. But most people think it’s polite if you do explain, should the topic comes up for some reason. “We should try to start normalizing mask wearing for whatever reason the person has,” Dr. Love says. “[It’s] very considerate.”

General rules of thumb for being in public while sick

  • If you get sick just before you’re supposed to leave for vacation, it’s not rude to go anyway — but you should take precautions like masking if taking public transportation like a plane.
  • In general, if you’re sick — or think you might be getting sick — and you have to go out, you should wear a mask in public spaces, including public transportation. “Also worth noting: try to limit public exposures if you can avoid them. For example, if you have the ability to order delivery groceries instead of going to a store,” Dr. Love adds. “Not always possible, of course.”

General rule of thumb for commenting on others’ masks (or lack thereof)

  • You can offer a mask to someone else, but only if it’s someone you know or someone who’s said that they’re sick. If you’re ever in doubt, mask up yourself instead.
  • You can tell people you know they’re masking incorrectly. When it comes to strangers, though, it’s better (and probably safer) to just mask up yourself if you’re concerned about their improper masking.

Workplace Sickness Etiquette

General rule of thumb for sick days

  • If you’re taking a sick day — assuming your company offers paid time off for sick days, and it’s possible to work from home — it’s not rude to work during the day. But it’s considered polite to avoid working in a “public-facing” way (think: answering emails or chiming in on Slack conversations).
  • Obviously, working while sick is also not required. If you need true rest, you should take it. “We live in a society where the ‘hustle’ culture is often to our detriment. Even if your illness is mild, your immune system fights best when you get good quality rest, hydration, and a balanced nutrient-rich diet,” Dr. Love says. So if you can take the day off, do.

Hand Sanitizer Etiquette

General rules of thumb for using sanitizer in public

  • When you use your own personal bottle of hand sanitizer, it’s polite — but not required — to offer the sanitizer to the people you’re with.
  • It’s rude to use hand sanitizer immediately after shaking hands with someone. Wait until you’re no longer with them, or sanitize discreetly.

Sickness Etiquette For Kids and Families

General rules of thumb for when your kid is under the weather

  • When your child is sick, but you feel fine, it’s considered polite to give people you have to see a heads up that you have a sick kid at home. But you don’t have to behave as if you’re sick too, unless you start experiencing symptoms. This is a tricky scenario — and a good compromise. “For any illness, the ‘attack rate’ isn’t 100 percent even if you live with someone who’s sick,” Dr. Love says. “[Getting sick] isn’t a guarantee, but the risk is higher.”
  • It’s OK to send a sick kid to daycare or school — but only if you’re compliant with the facilities’ sick day policies (eg, they’ve been fever-free for 24 hours). That said, consider the type of illness your little one has, Dr. Love says. “For example, norovirus is extremely contagious and can last for several weeks; measles should never be an exposure at daycare; etc.” And, of course, if it’s feasible to keep your child home when they’re under the weather, even if they could go in, go ahead and let them have the day to rest up.

General rule of thumb for when a parent is under the weather

  • When you’re sick, but your child seems fine, it’s polite to encourage them to be extra-diligent with hand washing, masking, and social distancing, and give people they’ll be seeing socially a heads up that their parent is sick.

General rule of thumb for when someone else’s kid is under the weather

  • If a fellow parent at your child’s school or daycare admits to sending their child in when they’re in violation in the facilities’ sick day policies, it’s not rude to alert the facility — but offering backup childcare solutions or asking more about why they feel they have to do so is also a nice thing to do. Notably, this is a rule in which the public’s and Dr. Love’s perspectives diverged. While the people who responded to this question in our mini survey noted you’re not compelled to alert the facility, Dr. Love says, “I think the daycare should be notified.” It’s not about tattling, but “being aware of the public health impact of these decisions (see recent measles outbreak in Philly),” she explains. Ultimately, we felt that doctor knows best in this situation.

And One Last General Rule of Thumb:

It’s never OK to lie about being sick or your symptoms.

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