The Difference Between Isolation and Quarantine for COVID-19

Get the specifics and learn how to do each safely
man quarantined at home

Finding out that you or someone close to you has been exposed to COVID-19 can be an extremely nerve-wracking and stressful situation. Our lives have already been turned upside down by physical social distancing, mask-wearing, variants and fluctuating case numbers at every turn.  

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But when COVID-19 shows up at your door, panic, frustration and even some confusion can arrive right along with it. Even if you’re vaccinated, the risk of a breakthrough case, including passing along the virus to others as a result of being asymptomatic, remains.  

So, what do you do if you or someone under your roof has been exposed to COVID-19, and how long do you need to isolate — or is it quarantine? Keep reading to learn some helpful guidelines from healthcare providers and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

The difference between isolation and quarantine 

While isolation and quarantine ultimately have the same goal, isolation is meant for those who are already sick. Its purpose is to keep people who are infected away from people who are healthy, so viruses like COVID-19 don’t spread. 

Quarantine is for people who’ve had close contact with someone who has COVID-19. While the thought of quarantining might be overwhelming or quite dreadful for some, the actual process doesn’t have to be unpleasant. After all, the whole point of quarantine is to prevent illnesses from spreading, regardless of whether you have symptoms.

It’s a good idea to keep an eye on the CDC guidelines for updates, though, as they could change as the pandemic continues to unfold. But one thing remains constant — isolation and quarantine, alongside social distancing and vaccines, are important tools for protecting yourself and others from illness.

“Quarantine doesn’t have to be a scary thing,” explains infectious disease specialist Steven Gordon, MD. “And it’s an effective way to protect the public.” 

What’s considered close contact? 

The CDC defines close contact as: 

  • You were within 6 feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a total of 15 minutes or more over a 24-hour period. 
  • You provided care at home to someone who is sick with COVID-19. 
  • You had direct physical contact with someone who has COVID-19 (hugged or kissed them). 
  • You shared eating or drinking utensils with someone sick with COVID-19.
  • They sneezed, coughed or somehow got respiratory droplets on you. 

When should you isolate? 

If you start experiencing common symptoms of COVID-19 or you test positive for the virus, with or without symptoms, isolate immediately. Isolation means staying home and separate from others in your household.

Tell those with who you were in contact that they were possibly exposed to COVID-19. People who are infected can spread COVID-19 starting 48 hours (or two days) before they have symptoms or test positive. Let everyone sooner than later to help prevent further transmission. 

How long should you isolate? 

According to the CDC, if you test positive, you should isolate for five days regardless of your vaccination status. The CDC recommends counting your five-day isolation period like this: 

  • If you’re symptomatic, the first day of symptoms is day 0. The first day after developing symptoms is day 1.  
  • If you’re asymptomatic but test positive, the day of your test is day 0. The first day after you test positive is day 1.

If you test positive for COVID, isolate for five days

If you have no symptoms or your symptoms are resolving after five days, you can leave your house. Just be sure to wear a mask around others for five additional days. However, if you have a fever, stay home until your fever breaks.

One thing, though: If you start your five-day isolation with no symptoms, but develop symptoms during isolation, you have to start your count over.

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How to isolate if you live alone 

If you live alone, it can be tough to stay put when you don’t have anyone to help you. These tips can help you stay safe and keep you from spreading the virus: 

  • Stay home except to get medical care. 
  • Don’t visit public spaces. 
  • Take care of yourself. Get rest and stay hydrated. Take over-the-counter medicines, such as acetaminophen, to help you feel better. 
  • Stay in touch with your doctor and call before you get medical care. Be sure to get help immediately if you have trouble breathing, or have any other emergency warning signs. 
  • Avoid public transportation, ride-sharing or taxis. 

How to isolate if you live with others  

If you live with others and are sick you should stay in a separate bedroom and use a separate bathroom if possible. You’ll need to avoid other common areas as well to prevent spreading COVID-19 to others. 

If you do have to enter shared spaces, wear a mask, practice as many social distancing efforts as possible and try to avoid any contact with others.  

When should you quarantine? 

Your quarantine guidelines depend on your vaccination status.  

Quarantining if you’re fully vaccinated 

If you’re fully vaccinated, the CDC says quarantining isn’t necessary after close contact with a person with COVID-19 as long as you don’t have symptoms. People who are fully vaccinated should get tested five to seven days after exposure and wear a mask indoors in public for 10 days after exposure or until they receive a negative test. If you develop symptoms, get tested and stay at home.

This guidance applies to those who have received a COVID-19 booster, people who have completed a two-shot series of Pfizer’s or Moderna’s vaccine within the last six months or people who received the J&J vaccine within the last two months.

Quarantining if you’re not vaccinated or have not received a COVID-19 booster

If it’s been more than six months since you finished a two-shot series of a vaccine or more than two months since you received the J&J shot and you did not get a booster, you should quarantine for five days. After that, continue wearing your mask around others for five more days. The same goes if you aren’t vaccinated. And of course, continue following the safety protocols that were put in place to keep us protected from COVID-19.

If you can’t quarantine, you’ll need to wear a mask for 10 days. Make sure you get tested by day five. If you develop symptoms, definitely get tested and stay home.

What to do if someone in your household has COVID-19 

If you live in close quarters and don’t have multiple bathrooms or even a space for a person who is sick to avoid others, James Merlino, MD, Chief Clinical Transformation Officer, recommends creating as much air circulation as possible in your home by opening windows (if it’s warm enough outside to do so).  

“If you have to be in close proximity to the person who is sick, everyone should wear masks,” Dr. Merlino says. “But trying to keep people separated as much as possible is the best thing you can do.” 

And of course, stay on top of hand hygiene and disinfect your space.  

How long should you quarantine if you live with someone who has COVID-19, but can avoid close contact with them? 

According to the CDC, if you’re fully vaccinated, you can follow the standard guidelines: Get tested five to seven days after exposure and wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days after exposure or until you receive a negative test. 

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If you’re not yet fully vaccinated, the CDC advises quarantining for the isolation period of your sick housemate or family member and then an additional 14 days after their isolation date ends.  

If you can’t avoid close contact with someone who has COVID-19, how long should you quarantine? 

If you have ongoing close contacts with someone who has COVID-19 — for example, if you live with someone and can’t avoid them or you’re caring for someone who has COVID-19 — your approach will, again, depend on your vaccination status. 

If you’re fully vaccinated:  

  • Get tested five to seven days after your first exposure. 
  • Get tested five to seven days after the person with COVID-19 ends their isolation. 
  • Always wear a mask when around the person with COVID-19. 
  • Wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days after the person with COVID-19 ends their isolation. 
  • If you develop common COVID-19 symptoms or test positive, begin isolation immediately. 

If you’re not fully vaccinated: 

  • Get tested as soon as you are aware of the exposure. 
  • Quarantine immediately for the duration of the isolation period for the person with COVID-19 and quarantine for an additional 14 days.  
  • Get tested five to seven days after the end of the isolation period for the person with COVID-19. 
  • Wear a mask when in contact with the person with COVID-19 and any other members of the household until your quarantine is over.  
  • If you develop common COVID-19 symptoms or test positive, begin isolation immediately. 

People who are severely ill might need to stay home for up to 20 days after their symptoms appeared. If someone is severely immunocompromised, check with their healthcare provider to see if they should be tested and to determine if they can be around others again.  

How long do you need to quarantine if you had close contact with someone who has COVID-19 while you were in quarantine? 

This one can be a bummer as the CDC recommends resetting your quarantine countdown and starting from day 0 again.  

Things to keep in mind when caring for someone with COVID-19 

Remember that in most cases, people who get sick with COVID-19 can recover safely at home. But they may need extra encouragement to get rest and stay away from others. Dr. Merlino recommends that when you are caring for someone who is infected, stay in contact with a healthcare provider. They may be advised to get tested for COVID-19 or to just stay home and monitor their symptoms. 

If the person you’re caring for has tested positive or has symptoms of COVID-19, here’s what you can do to help them: 

  1. Check on them often and watch for warning signs. Things can change quickly with COVID-19. If your friend or loved one starts experiencing shortness of breath, persistent chest pain, confusion, trouble staying awake or their lips or face turns blue, get help immediately.  
  2. Make sure they have medications and supplies. Keep a thermometer close so the person who is sick can monitor their fever, or you can help do so. A healthcare provider might even recommend over-the-counter medicines such as pain relievers, cough suppressants and fever reducers to help keep them comfortable. 
  3. Help take care of their basic needs. This includes making sure that the person who is sick drinks lots of fluids and rests. You might also have to help with getting groceries delivered, preparing meals, caring for pets and taking care of other household duties. If you’re at high risk, let someone else help with these tasks.  
  4. Contact the people who’ve they’ve been in close contact with. Make a list of the people who have been in close contact with the infected person. Then, let them know immediately so they can quarantine as recommended by the CDC. 
  5. Offer emotional support. Isolation can be boring and frustrating, especially if people were pretty active before getting sick. When someone is in isolation, don’t just let them sit in their room without any type of interaction. “Supporting people’s emotional state is really important,” Dr. Merlino says. Arrange video chats with family and friends or slide hand-written notes or art activities under the door daily.  

The bottom line: Get vaccinated

Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect you and your family and friends while also preventing the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Even in the event of a breakthrough case, people who are fully vaccinated experience much milder symptoms or no symptoms at all. Vaccines also greatly limit the chances of severe illness, hospitalization or death from a breakthrough case. 

If you happen to be exposed to someone who has COVID-19, though, or test positive for it yourself, understanding how and when to isolate and quarantine can help speed you along your recovery, and prevent further infection to others.

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