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COVID-19: What Do Quarantine and Isolation Mean?

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we heard a lot about the need to quarantine and isolate.

Here’s an overview of what these words mean:

Quarantine means a person stays home after being exposed to a contagious disease to see if they become sick. During the pandemic, people used to have to quarantine after close contact with someone infected with coronavirus. This was meant to keep people who might have been infected apart from others so they don’t spread the virus. Now that so many people have immunity to the virus (due to vaccination or from a previous COVID-19 infection), the CDC no longer recommends quarantining after exposure. Instead, they recommend that people who are exposed wear a mask for 10 days, because people can develop COVID-19 up to 10 days after they were exposed to the virus. So they may be infected without realizing it. Experts also recommend doing a COVID test at least 5 days after exposure to check for infection.

Isolation means staying home when a person is infected with a contagious disease so they don’t spread it to others. It means staying away from family members too. People should isolate if they:

  • have symptoms of COVID-19
  • test positive for COVID-19 (with or without symptoms)

Even people who are up to date with their vaccines should isolate if they have symptoms or test positive.

Guidelines for how long to quarantine after exposure or for how long to isolate when infected can differ from country to country. They also change over time as the virus changes or there’s new information about how it spreads. Guidelines also can be used differently by some school districts or workplaces.

Check the CDC’s guidelines for more information about how to isolate.

Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2023