Ethical Dilemma

It’s Monday evening. About nine hours ago, as I was preparing for a video conference with clients, I noticed a swollen gland in my neck. By mid-afternoon, my throat was gucky. By dinner time, I had chills. Now my head is getting stuffy and my right nostril is clogging.

A rotten old cold. Haven’t had one in months.

Illustrations of Ventilation by Lewis W. LeedsSo what’s the big deal? I have plans for Tuesday afternoon to meet up with an old friend whom I haven’t seen in well over a decade. She’s in Boston for a conference. We’ve been planning this get-together for more than a month. Do I stay home or do I go?

Colds—really, respiratory viruses—present an ethical dilemma. Are you actually so sick that you risk getting worse by going out, or giving it to someone else (your good friend from childhood)? Or do you just power through it and take your chances (for yourself and everyone else with whom you come in contact)?

Most people tend to favor the latter approach. Do what you want to do because, well, you want to. Go to work even if you’re under the weather because, well, you have to. It’s “only a cold,” after all. Everyone gets them. If you stay home whenever you have a little sniffle, you’re considered a hypochondriac or a baby.

But that is why colds are so ubiquitous. Respiratory viruses are highly contagious. Untreated, they can develop into much more serious, chronic health challenges, such as bronchitis or pneumonia, or trigger asthma. Your little sniffle can make someone else really sick.

When I ran a marketing department at a small New England college, I always used to tell my staff to go home if they were sneezing and coughing, even if it was “just a cold,” so they’d get better faster and not infect the rest of us. They appreciated it (most of them, anyway—some worried about using up sick time), and I believe our department was healthier and more productive as a result.

My natural tendency is to favor the ounce-of-prevention-is-worth-a-pound-of-cure approach, just because my own health requires careful management. I also think it really matters to take others’ health and feelings into account when weighing the should-I-go-or-stay decision. And yet—my friend and I haven’t seen each other in ages, and I don’t know when we’ll have another chance to get together anytime soon.

Complicating all this: It’s supposed to be a chilly, rainy day in Boston. Not my kind of weather under any circumstances.

What to do? After dinner, I emailed my friend and told her what was up. I don’t want to impose my germs on her, but I also don’t want to cancel our date without letting her weigh in. I said I’d let her know how I was doing in the morning. Then I loaded up on fish oil and Vitamin C.

Now I need to get a good night’s sleep. Maybe I’ll get lucky. This is a fast moving cold, and it could be resolved by morning (possible but unlikely). Or maybe I won’t feel all that bad, and we can just be careful. Worst case scenario: we can always Skype.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at

Image Credit: Illustrations of Ventilation, from Lectures on Ventilation (1869) by Lewis W. Leeds. Courtesy of Public Domain Review.


  1. Patricia Bizzell says:

    You are right that this decision really poses an ethical dilemma, although people do not often think of it that way. I am a college teacher, and people in my work environment, both students and faculty, routinely try to power through minor illnesses. Which, of course, then spread quickly around campus. But we take the risk because classes and meetings are very difficult to re-schedule. I do not have to worry about using up an officially allotted number of sick days, but I do have to worry about another ethical obligation, which is to try to give my students the education they are paying for. No easy answer!

    But I hope you got to see your friend in person, Ev.

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