What Self-Isolation Means and How to Practice It

Published April 3, 2020
sick woman on phone taking temperature

During an outbreak of a contagious disease, such as influenza or the coronavirus, understanding what social distancing, quarantine, and isolation mean is essential for staying informed and healthy, as well as for protecting yourself by limiting your exposure to a contagious disease.

Isolation, Quarantine, and Social Distancing

Social distancing, quarantine, and isolation are all meant to prevent the spread of a communicable disease. The differences relate to the likelihood that an individual or group of people will spread the disease. For the prevention and spread of contagious diseases, all three may be voluntary or mandated by federal, state, or local public health orders.

What Do They Mean?

According to the Centers for Disease and Prevention:

  • "Isolation separates sick people with a contagious disease from people who are not sick."
  • "Quarantine separates and restricts the movement of people who were exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick."
  • Social distancing requires maintaining a distance of approximately six feet from others and avoiding mass gatherings such as shopping centers, theaters, stadiums, conferences, mass transit, and travel.

Why Do People Self-Isolate?

During a health crisis, many will say they are "self-isolating." But keep in mind that this is a more casual use of "isolation" than the CDC's definition and doesn't necessarily mean the person is infected.

  • Some individuals self-isolate to reduce their own risk of infection by avoiding contact with others.
  • Some self-isolate because they have been exposed to a communicable disease and may come down with it.
  • Others have been diagnosed with a contagious disease, and self-isolation is medically necessary and mandatory to prevent spreading the infection to others.

How Long Should You Self-Isolate

How long you should isolate depends on the communicable disease. It's best to speak to your doctor if you're unsure of when to end self-isolation. However, common sense tells you that you should stay in self-isolation until you're no longer infectious. For example, recent guidelines related to coronavirus state that:

  • If you're having symptoms, you should self-isolate at least seven days from when your symptoms first started.
  • If you live with others and they have symptoms, all members of the household should self-isolate in the home for 14 days after the symptoms started.

What to Do When in Self-Isolation

Self-isolation can prevent an individual from contracting a communicable disease. It can also provide individuals the opportunity to recover from a contagious illness without spreading it to others. Though there are different reasons to self-isolate, if you're sick or have tested positive for a disease, you should undoubtedly self-isolate. Below are ways to practice self-insolation.

Stay at Home

Don't go for a walk, to school, work, the grocery store, or anywhere else when you're self-isolated. Limit your out-of-home activity to urgent and necessary medical care.

Frequently Clean and Disinfect Surfaces

Take care in wiping down surfaces that are frequently touched with household cleaners or disinfectant wipes. This includes doorknobs, countertops, phones, keyboards, etc.

Separate Yourself From Family

If you live with your family or have a roommate, you'll need to separate from them and to take extra precautions.

  • Stay in one room and use a separate bathroom or thoroughly clean a shared bathroom each time it's used.
  • Don't share dishes, utensils, towels, or other personal items.
  • After using or touching anything in your home, make sure it's thoroughly washed with soap and water.
  • Frequently wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer.
  • Use a tissue if you sneeze or cough, then immediately put the used tissues in a covered trash can and wash your hands.
  • Wear a face mask if you must be around your family members, or house mates to prevent spreading germs.
Mother and son wearing face masks

Take Care of Yourself

Stay active to boost your overall mood. Read, take an online class or play games to stay mentally active. If you're feeling well enough, you'll want to stay physically active as well. You could start an indoor exercise routine, walk up and down a flight of stairs or turn on some music and dance around in your room, anything that gets your heart beating and keeps your body moving.

Stay Virtually Connected With Family and Friends

If you can't have physical contact due to self-isolation, having quality time with family and friends through Facetime, Skype, or Zoom can boost your mood, so take time to socialize virtually.

woman on virtual call

Monitor Your Symptoms

Most importantly, pay attention to how you're feeling and make sure to contact your physician if your symptoms worsen, but avoid visiting a health care facility unless you've been advised to do so by your doctor.

Protect Your Friends, Family, and Community

Isolation should be voluntary whenever possible. It's best to consider self-isolation a civic duty and be willing to sacrifice your freedom of movement in order to protect your friends, family, and community.

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What Self-Isolation Means and How to Practice It