How Does Social Distancing Work?

When an infectious disease is spreading in a community, governments and individuals can take steps to try to prevent it. One option is social distancing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social distancing includes:

  • Staying out of public settings
  • Avoiding large gatherings of people
  • Maintaining at least 6 feet of distance from others when possible

But what does social distancing mean? And how can it help prevent the spread of disease?

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How Does Social Distancing Work?

Social distancing attempts to reduce the spread of disease by limiting close contact among people, which the CDC defines as within 6 feet.

Unlike quarantine and isolation – two other prevention options – social distancing doesn’t require you to stay in one place to avoid spreading disease. Instead, you take steps to avoid large groups of people to lower the risk of disease spread.

Examples of social distancing when an infectious disease is spreading include:

  • Companies telling employees to work from home
  • Schools canceling in-person classes
  • Shutdown of businesses like movie theaters, malls, daycare centers, and libraries
  • Restrictions on public transportation and travel
  • Postponement or cancellation of sporting events, concerts, music festivals, parades, and other large gatherings

Can Social Distancing Prevent Disease?


Some respiratory illnesses can spread person-to-person through airborne particles.

When someone who is sick talks, coughs, or sneezes, they release particles into the air. Those particles then can land in the mouth, nose, or eyes of someone in close contact, possibly infecting that person.

Studies have shown that social distancing measures can help slow the spread of contagious diseases.

A 2018 report examined workplace social distancing during the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic. It found workplace social distancing caused a reduction in flu cases, especially when combined with other non-medicine preventive measures. The reduction was smaller if workplaces delayed social distancing tactics or had lower compliance.

Another study of the H1N1 pandemic reported that mandatory school closures in Mexico reduced flu transmission rates.

Social distancing measures are most effective when governments or other officials put them in place early. A March 2020 report found social distancing and other preventive measures could have reduced COVID-19 cases in China if implemented sooner.

Effectiveness of Workplace Social Distancing Measures in Reducing Influenza Transmissions: A Systematic Review . BMC Public Health. What Is 'Social Distancing?' Here's How to Best Practice It as Coronavirus Spreads. Time. Interim US Guidance for Risk Assessment and Public Health Management of Persons with Potential Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Exposures: Geographic Risk and Contacts of Laboratory-confirmed Cases . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Considerations Relating to Social Distancing Measures in Response to the COVID-19 Epidemic . European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Effect of Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions for Containing the COVID-19 Outbreak: An Observational and Modelling Study . Flu Pandemic Study Supports Social Distancing . National Institutes of Health.

About Infectious Diseases

If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. We have specialty units for prevention and treatment of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, and illnesses caused by international travel. Our faculty research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods.