Isolation and Quarantine: What Do They Mean?

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You’re showing signs of a respiratory disease and don’t want to spread it to others. Or maybe you were exposed and don’t have any symptoms, but you still don’t want anyone else to get sick.

In some cases, isolation or quarantine becomes part of the treatment or prevention plan. Officials can order isolation and quarantine, or you can voluntarily self-quarantine.

In isolation, people who are sick separate themselves from people who aren’t. Quarantine separates people who are currently not sick but either were exposed to disease, or they have it and aren’t showing symptoms.

Both methods require staying in one location to avoid spreading disease.

Another prevention method, social distancing, refers to avoiding large groups of people to avoid getting or spreading a disease. It doesn’t require staying in one place.

Quarantine and isolation possibly can help to slow, or stop, the spread of disease. But when is it necessary?

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Do I Need Isolation or Quarantine?

Governments can advise – or order – isolation or quarantine in times of widely spreading disease. You also can decide to self-isolate or self-quarantine even if the government hasn’t ordered it.

If you are showing symptoms or believe you have been exposed to an infectious disease, contact your health care provider first. Your health care provider can advise you on steps you should take.

You should self-isolate if you are showing symptoms of an illness like influenza or COVID-19, the disease caused by novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Doing so can help prevent the disease from spreading.

If you have been exposed to the illness, even if you aren’t showing symptoms, you may decide or be advised to self-quarantine after consulting with a health care provider or public health authorities. With some illnesses, symptoms may not show up until days after your exposure. In the case of COVID-19, that can take anywhere from two days to two weeks.

If you are exposed or ill and do not self-quarantine or self-isolate, you run the risk of spreading the disease. If you have not been exposed, and if you are not sick, quarantine and isolation are not needed.


How Do Isolation and Quarantine Work?

For both self-isolation and self-quarantine, you should take similar steps:

  • Stay home, unless you’re getting medical care: Do not go to work, school, or public areas, and don’t use public transportation. Staying at home can help protect other people from exposure. If you do seek medical care, call your health care provider first to let them know.
  • Limit close contact with others: If you live with other people, try to minimize close contact while you’re sick. That includes staying in a separate room and using another bathroom than other people, if possible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines close contact as within 6 feet.
  • Wear a facemask if you’re sick: Many respiratory illnesses can spread through airborne droplets. If you’re showing signs of respiratory illness, or if you’re caring for someone who is, using a proper facemask can help. If you are not sick, you do not need to wear a facemask in your home. If you are home alone or self-isolating in a room within your home, a facemask is not needed.
  • Cover up when you cough or sneeze: Use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose when you cough and sneeze. Throw the used tissue away afterward.
  • Wash your hands: Practice good handwashing techniques. Wash your hands after coughing and sneezing, after touching common surfaces, before eating, and after using the bathroom. Use soap and water and scrub for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Don’t touch your face: Avoid touching your hands, nose, and eyes.
  • Clean heavily used surfaces: Sanitize heavily touched surfaces – such as countertops, tables, doorknobs, phones, and more – frequently. Use a household spray or wipe and follow the instructions.
  • Don’t share personal items: Do not share items such as cups, plates, or silverware with others. Wash them thoroughly after use.

If you begin showing symptoms, or existing symptoms get worse, call your health care provider.

Call your health care provider to see when you should end your isolation or quarantine if symptoms subside or don’t show up.

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .

What Is the Difference Between Isolation and Quarantine?. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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