How Are Social Distancing, Self-Quarantine, and Self-Isolation Different?

These public health measures all limit contact with people who may be contagious—in varying degrees.

As the COVID-19 pandemic circulates, public health measures that restrict contact with infected people are important for limiting the spread of the disease. Social distancing, self-quarantine, and self-isolation are strategies for preventing the transmission of the virus. But how are they different, and when do you need to use them?

If you have been exposed to the virus or know that you are infected, public health experts advise putting these practices to work. Here's what you need to know to keep yourself, your family, and your community safe.

Social distancing

This term refers to public health measures that keep people at safe distances from one another in order to slow the spread of disease. Early in the pandemic, social distancing meant staying at home, completely out of range of other people, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. As communities opened up and people reentered society, the phrase "physical distancing" became more appropriate, emphasizing the need to create a measurable space between people.

The CDC recommends staying at least six feet away from other people when you are indoors, if you have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 and particularly if you are at higher risk for infection. Inside your home, the CDC recommends avoiding close contact with people who are sick, advising again to keep a six-foot distance.

When it comes to daily life, you may wonder about going to work, the grocery store, and the gym, particularly as infection rates ebb and flow.

"For the average person, social distancing might mean not taking nonessential trips, trying to be mindful of how much contact they have with other people, working remotely, and not attending mass gatherings or taking part in activities that might expose them to the virus," according to infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the John's Hopkins Center for Health Security.

If you are elderly or immunocompromised, though, you may choose to be more stringent in social distancing, said Dr. Adalja, noting that your decisions come down to knowing your own personal health risks and using common sense. "Just be careful when you're out and be aware of the exposure risk you're facing."

Self-quarantine

According to the CDC, quarantine refers to separating and restricting the movement of unvaccinated people who are not yet sick or showing symptoms but have been exposed to the virus. While quarantined, these people are monitored to see if they become sick.

Quarantine involves staying home and separated for five days after your close contact with an infected person. Watch for fever, shortness of breath, cough, or other symptoms. At day five, get tested. If you are negative for COVID-19, you may leave home, wearing a well-fitting mask for 10 days from contact. If you develop symptoms, get tested immediately and isolate until you get your results. If you test positive, isolate for five days from the date of your test.

If you are up to date on your vaccinations or have had a positive test for COVID-19 within 90 days, you do not need to quarantine. You do, however, need to wear a well-fitting mask around other people for 10 days after contact with the infected person. After five days, get tested for COVID-19. If you're positive for infection at that point, you'll need to isolate.

One exception: For people living in congregate settings with increased chances for disease transmission, including prisons, shelters, or cruise ships, the CDC recommends a 10-day quarantine for all people exposed to infection. This goes for both vaccinated and unvaccinated residents of such facilities.

Self-isolation

While self-quarantine separates you from others when you're not sure if you've been infected, self-isolation separates you when the disease is confirmed or suspected. Whether you are unvaccinated or vaccinated, you'll need to isolate if you test positive for COVID-19 or show symptoms without a test.

The CDC's procedures are similar for both quarantine and isolation: Stay home, away from the general public, and limit contact with uninfected people.

Specifically, if you are isolating, stay alone in a designated "sick room" or space and avoid sharing a bathroom, if you can. Isolate for at least five full days from the onset of symptoms or a positive test, if you do not have symptoms. Wear a mask for 10 days.

The CDC also recommends that you monitor your symptoms carefully and contact your doctor if they worsen. Make sure to get enough rest, stay hydrated, practice rigorous handwashing, avoid sharing personal items, and clean household surfaces regularly.

How do I stay calm?

While minimizing the spread of COVID-19 relies on these measures, it's also important to avoid panicking and keep things in perspective, Adam Splayer, MD, a board-certified cardiologist, told Health.

"You could just live in a bubble and all viruses, including the coronavirus, will still be around when you come up for air," he said, recommending common sense tactics including washing hands, avoiding others if you're sick, and limiting situations that make you feel uncomfortable. His best advice: "Be smart, be safe, and be careful."

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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