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  • Posted January 31, 2024

Folks Often Hide Infectious Illness at Work, Socializing

A disturbing number of people sick with an infectious disease conceal their illness to avoid missing work, travel or social events, new research reveals.

About three in four people (75%) had either hidden an infectious illness from others at least once or might do so in the future.

These folks reported boarding planes, going on dates and engaging in other social activities while sick, heedless of the infection risk they posed to others, according to a report published Jan. 24 in the journal Psychological Science.

This even included health care workers, who presumably should know better.

More than three in five people in health care (61%) said they had concealed an infectious illness, results show.

The researchers also found a difference between how people actually behave when they're sick versus how they believe they would act.

“Healthy people forecasted that they would be unlikely to hide harmful illnesses -- those that spread easily and have severe symptoms -- but actively sick people reported high levels of concealment, regardless of how harmful their illness was to others,” said lead researcher Wilson Merrell, a doctoral candidate from the University of Michigan.

In one part of the study, Merrell and his colleagues recruited more than 900 participants on the University of Michigan campus, including about 400 university health care employees.

Study participants were asked how many days they'd felt symptoms of infectious disease since the pandemic began in March 2020, as well as whether they'd hidden their illness from others.

More than 70% reported covering up their symptoms. Many said they did so because an illness would conflict with social plans, while a small percentage said they did so because of a lack of paid time off.

Another stage of the study involved an online survey of 900 people, some of whom were actively sick. The participants were asked to rate the transmissibility of their real or imagined illness, as well as their likelihood of hiding their illness to meet someone.

Compared to healthy participants who only imagined being sick, people who were actively ill were more likely to conceal their infection, results show.

“This suggests that sick people and healthy people evaluate the consequences of concealment in different ways, with sick people being relatively insensitive to how spreadable and severe their illness may be for others," Merrell said in a university news release.

The pandemic might have changed this by highlighting the importance of infection control. For example, in the first study only five participants reported hiding a COVID infection.

But it still makes sense that some people would callously conceal their illness, given how others tend to respond to a sick person, Merrell said.

“After all, people tend to react negatively to, find less attractive and steer clear of people who are sick with infectious illness,” Merrell said. “It therefore makes sense that we may take steps to cover up our sickness in social situations. This suggests that solutions to the problem of disease concealment may need to rely on more than just individual good will.”

More information

Johns Hopkins Medicine has more about social distancing and self-quarantine.

SOURCE: University of Michigan, news release, Jan. 29, 2024

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