(LifeWire) -- Most of us know that dragging ourselves to work when we're sick is a really bad move. Unfortunately, not all of our co-workers have gotten the memo during this cold and flu season.
"The problem with office culture is that people are afraid to go home when they're sick," says Deborah Rice, 39, an office manager in New York City.
"I've been working in the financial industry for several years now and have found, at least in this industry, that just as people are discouraged from taking all the vacation days they have coming, they are also frowned upon for staying out sick."
"People seem to think that a cold -- no matter how severe -- is a poor excuse to stay home," says Rice. "But a cold can easily spread around the office. We pass papers back and forth to each other, we touch things on each other's desks, we all touch the same microwave, water machine, refrigerator handle. One cold can become 10 colds."
Ben Chaney, 32, can relate. Before moving to West Hollywood, California, where he is a writer's assistant on a television series, Chaney worked for an executive search firm in Manhattan. "There were nine people in the office," he recalls. "If someone came to work sick, it was almost comical how it would spread through the office. It happened just about every month."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 5 to 20 percent of Americans contract the influenza virus annually, leading to 200,000 hospitalizations and 36,000 deaths. In addition to flu, the vast majority of Americans contract the common cold every year, with outbreaks typically occurring in the fall and spring.
According to a 2005 survey conducted by OfficeTeam, an administrative staffing firm, 80 percent of people go to work while sick. That translates to millions of cold- and flu-ridden Americans sneezing and coughing their way through the workday, spreading germs in their wake.
With so many people forcing themselves to go to work when they're sick, what are companies doing to keep their work forces healthy -- and how can you protect yourself from getting ill?
Many workers take matters into their own hands when it comes to protecting their health. Chaney, who does not go out of his way to take precautions, recalls a colleague who used to hand out disinfectant wipes around the office, and insisted that others keep a box of wipes at their desks. "She was pretty strict about it," he says.
These proactive office germaphobes might just be doing their co-workers a favor. A study published in the "British Medical Journal" in November found that hand washing may be more effective than vaccines at preventing the spread of illnesses such as the flu.
Andrea Nanni, 26, of Glendale, Arizona, an office manager for a small law firm, admits to a particular anxiety about her company's restroom. "We have clients come in all the time and we only have one bathroom stall. ... I do spend a large amount of time cleaning the bathroom, because you just never know," she says.
Nanni, who also tutors school-age children part time, uses several techniques to ward off illness. "Kids are the worst about being sick," she says. "I make them use hand sanitizer constantly, and I drink Emergen-C (a vitamin C supplement) to keep myself healthy. I'm pretty obsessed with it." To date, she has managed to avoid contracting anything more than a mild cold from work.
Rice and Chaney are bothered by co-workers who share what's ailing them with the rest of the office, and according to the CDC, their instincts are dead on. In addition to recommending that you avoid close contact with sick people and stay home when you are ill, the CDC has the following tips for preventing the spread of viruses during cold and flu season:
• Get a flu shot.
• If you're sick, cover both nose and mouth with a tissue when coughing or sneezing and then throw the tissue away. If you don't have a tissue, use your upper arm or crook of your elbow.
• Wash your hands frequently and vigorously for 15 to 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based wipe or hand sanitizer.
• Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. E-mail to a friend
LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Heather M. Ross, MS, APRN, NP, is an adult nurse practitioner specializing in cardiovascular care