How To Self Isolate in a Shared House if You or Someone You Live With Has COVID-19

Yes, the six-feet rule applies to your own home sometimes, too.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended certain practices while in public, including social distancing, wearing a mask, and good hand hygiene to avoid coming into contact with or spreading COVID-19. But what happens when you or someone you live with is diagnosed with the virus?

While there is still more to learn regarding COVID-19, researchers seem to know one thing for sure: The infectiousness of COVID-19 seems to make it a family affair. For example, a study published in August 2021 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases suggested that the secondary household attack rate (or SAR—the percentage of people in the same household who contract COVID-19 from the person in the household who got it first) was 32% to 51%. This means that it can spread quickly and easily throughout a household.

This is mostly because SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—is spread primarily from person to person through droplets that become aerosolized and propelled when someone coughs or sneezes, Jaimie Meyer, MD, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist, told Health. Because the virus can also survive on various surfaces for certain periods of time, it can spread from person to person through direct contact with those surfaces, although, according to the CDC, the risk for contaminated surface transmission is low.

While you can spread the disease before you know you have it, if you do have symptoms, you should self-isolate and get tested. "If you are feeling ill with symptoms of COVID-19 or have been diagnosed with COVID-19, it is important to stay home to prevent transmitting the virus to people in your community and to stay isolated within your home to prevent transmitting the virus to other people in your household," said Dr. Meyer.

Of course, that's easier said than done. "Isolating can be really hard, especially when you live with other people or in smaller spaces," added Dr. Meyer. While she doesn't think people are intentionally disregarding isolation procedures, she pointed out that it can be logistically challenging and potentially confusing as the guidelines changed often throughout the pandemic. "Isolation can also be psychologically challenging and distressing, especially if you don't feel well," said Dr. Meyer.

So, How Do You Self Isolate in a Shared Home?

Dr. Meyer pointed to the CDC's guidelines on how to care for and cohabitate with someone who is sick with COVID-19. One of the first things is to avoid having any unnecessary visitors unless they have an "essential need" to be there.

The CDC explains that while a caregiver can help the patient with their basic needs in the home—grocery getting, prescription filling, and other personal needs as well as monitoring their symptoms and communicating with their healthcare provider if they are getting sicker—they should be making very little, if any, physical contact with them. Because of this, sharing a room with someone who is sick is not a good idea. "If possible, designate a bedroom and bathroom for their use only," instructed Dr. Meyer, and added that good air flow is also key. "Close the door but open a window to improve the ventilation of the space."

Of course, there are times you might have to be near the person with COVID-19, and in some situations, the person with COVID-19 needs to be physically taken care of by someone else. In this case, both of you should wear masks, per the CDC.

You should also avoid using the same household items as the infected person. You should not share dishes, drinking glasses, cups, eating utensils, towels, bedding, or other items, instructs the CDC. After the person with COVID-19 uses these items, they should be thoroughly washed. And, if you must clean the room or bathroom of a person with COVID-19, extra care should be taken to sanitize potentially contaminated surfaces, per the CDC. The same goes for washing the clothes or bedding of the infected person, which should be immediately removed and washed if they're contaminated with any bodily fluids (blood, stool, saliva, mucus, etc.). All of this should be done while wearing gloves, per the CDC, which should be disposed of after use, so you can wash your hands immediately.

Also important: If you are the individual isolating, make sure you take care of your health. "Drink plenty of fluids, rest, and take acetaminophen or ibuprofen as needed for fevers or body aches," said Dr. Meyer.

And call your doctor to let them know that you have COVID-19. Together you can come up with a plan and decide if you should receive any treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies or antiviral medications. Both have been shown to reduce hospitalizations and death, especially in people who have certain medical conditions that place them at higher risk of severe COVID-19, such as smoking, diabetes, and heart disease.

When can isolation end? The CDC guidelines state that the person who tested positive for COVID-19 can end isolation after five days, regardless of vaccination status, as long as they haven't had a fever in at least 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication) and other symptoms are improving. Then for the next five days, that person should wear a mask when in public or around other people. Those who got very sick with COVID-19 or have a weakened immune system should isolate themselves for 10 days and then talk to their doctor before ending isolation. For anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 but has no symptoms, isolation starts the day they test positive, and they, too, can end it after five days (but should still wear a mask for the next five days).

It's important to follow these guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19. "It can be tempting to end isolation too early," said Dr. Meyer. "You can protect your household and other people in your community from becoming ill if you see the isolation period through completely."

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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