What is Social Distancing—and How is it Different from Self-Quarantine and Self-Isolation?

All three boil down to limiting contact with others—just on different scales.

Along with the rest of the world, the US continues to be in the grips of a COVID-19 pandemic: as schools and stores reopen, the White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) call on all Americans to follow current social distancing guidelines.

The CDC releases different social distancing guidelines for different communities and counties depending on their COVID-19 risk and infection rates. If a county has an outbreak, the government may recommend greater restrictions. Additionally, the CDC advises self-isolation for those who have tested positive for COVID-19 as well as those who may have been exposed to it.

Both self-quarantine and self-isolation are helpful in limiting the spread of COVID-19, but they are only part of the public health toolkit to fight the pandemic. That's where the concept of social distancing comes into play.

What does "social distancing" mean?

The CDC recommends people social distance by remaining at least 6 feet away from others who are not part of their household or who are sick. If you are unvaccinated or have a higher risk of COVID-19 infection, the CDC also recommends you avoid crowded public spaces like shopping centers, movie theaters, and stadiums.

Past that though, it's hard for the average person to know what "social distancing" truly means when it comes to their daily lives—questions about going to work, the grocery store, and even the gym arise. But measures don't have to be as drastic as never leaving your home.

"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.

Those recommendations change a bit, however, if you are elderly or immunocompromised. In that case, Dr. Adalja says it may be wise to be more stringent in social distancing—you should spend more time at home and limit contact with others even further. But overall, Dr. Adalja says it comes 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," he says.

How is it different from self-isolation and self-quarantine?

All three of these terms—social distancing, self-isolation (or isolation), and self-quarantine (or quarantine)—limit personal and social contact, but on different levels.

According to the CDC, isolation separates sick people from those who aren't ill, and it can happen with or without medical supervision. Quarantine, on the other hand, refers to separating and restricting the movement of those who are not yet sick, but have been exposed to the virus. These people are monitored to see if they become sick.

The CDC's procedures for those who are self-isolating or self-quarantining for COVID-19 are similar: stay home away from the general public and limit contact with uninfected people they live with.

The CDC also recommends self-isolating or self-quarantining people monitor their symptoms carefully and contact their doctor if symptoms develop or worsen. They should also get enough rest, stay hydrated, practice rigorous handwashing or use hand sanitizer frequently and according to directions, avoid sharing personal items, and clean household surfaces regularly. People who are ill should try to confine themselves to one room and sleep alone.

Social distancing vs. sheltering in place

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, several states and counties issued "shelter in place" and "stay at home" orders for residents to stay home unless their job is essential to public health and safety. These regulations were issued to support social distancing practices and prevent people from congregating.

However, even as these orders are lifted, you should still follow social distancing and other health guidelines. When you're out and about, maintain a buffer zone of at least 6 feet between yourself and others. Try to stay home if you suspect you have COVID-19, and keep 6 feet away from people in your household who have COVID-19.

While it's important to take the coronavirus seriously and take appropriate measures for your own health and the health of others, per the advice of public health officials, it's also important to avoid panicking and to keep things in perspective, says Adam Splayer, MD, a board-certified cardiologist.

"You could just live in a bubble and all viruses, including the coronavirus, will still be around when you come up for air," he says. So again, your protection and the protection of others comes down to common sense: Wash your hands, don't touch your face (quite so much), stay away from others if you're sick, and limit situations that make you feel uncomfortable at this time. Essentially, per Dr. Splayer: "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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