Quarantining at Home: What to Do After a COVID-19 Exposure or Diagnosis

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with COVID-19 or were potentially exposed to the virus, here’s everything you need to know about quarantining with your family.

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

Officials worldwide are working diligently to combat the spread of COVID-19, which proves more challenging each time a new variant emerges. One of the best weapons in the fight against the disease remains one of the simplest: quarantine. But the rules about how to quarantine have changed since the pandemic began.

When you've had exposure to someone who's infected, choosing quarantine—or isolation, if you've tested positive—can limit transmission within the community. In an era of vaccines and self-testing, that's still critical. Read on to learn about the latest guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on quarantining, with tips for doing it as a family.

When You've Been Exposed To COVID-19: Self-Quarantining

COVID-19 spreads when infected people cough, sneeze, talk, or breathe, releasing contagious droplets into the air. If these droplets come in contact with your eyes, nose, or mouth, you can catch the virus. Transmission can also happen if you touch a contaminated surface, then touch your face. In poorly ventilated spaces, airborne transmission is also possible. Naturally, being near someone with the virus—also known as "close contact"— increases your risk of contracting it.

According to the CDC, "close contact" means you were within 6 feet of someone with COVID-19 for longer than 15 total minutes over the course of 24 hours. That might include talking to them, kissing them, caring for them when they're sick, or exercising with them indoors. The first day of exposure is considered day 0, though you may not know if someone has COVID-19 yet. Your symptoms may not show up until 2 to 14 days later.

If you know that you've come into close contact with someone who has COVID-19, you need to ask yourself two questions. One, have you been fully vaccinated (and boosted)? Two, have you personally had COVID in the last 90 days, and recovered from it? If the answer to either question is "yes," you do not need to quarantine unless you develop symptoms or test positive (but you still need to wear a well-fitting mask for 10 days around others). Indeed, you don't need to quarantine after exposure in the following situations:

  • You're 5 or older, fully vaccinated, and boosted if eligible
  • You've already recovered from COVID-19 within the previous three months

If the answer to both of the above questions is "no"—meaning you're not vaccinated and boosted, and you haven't been diagnosed and recovered from COVID-19 in the past 90 days— you should quarantine. It's recommended that you quarantine for at least five days. Also avoid travel, and wear a mask at all times; don't go to restaurants or places where you might need to remove it. And try to remember that there's a good reason behind it. "Quarantine keeps someone who might have been exposed to the virus away from others," says the CDC.

Vaccination status aside, anyone exposed to COVID-19 should watch for symptoms for 10 days afterward. Test immediately if you develop them, and isolate until you get results (follow CDC guidelines for isolation if you test positive). If you don't develop symptoms, test after five days to be safe anyway, and wear a mask around others for 10 full days.

What To Do After Testing Positive: Self-Isolation

In order to limit coronavirus transmission, it's vital to self-isolate after displaying symptoms of COVID-19 or receiving a positive diagnosis. Common symptoms of the virus include coughing, shortness of breath, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue, and fever, although many others have been reported. "Isolation is used to separate people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 from those without COVID-19," the CDC says.

If your test was positive, self-isolate for at least five full days after symptoms first appear, regardless of your vaccination status. Consider the first day of symptoms or the day of your positive test to be day 0. Day 1 is the first full day after that. Stay away from others in your home during this time, and wear a mask when you're around anyone for 10 full days.

Guidelines for ending self-isolation vary, depending on your specific circumstance.

  • If you've had symptomatic COVID-19, you can end isolation after five full days, as long as you've been fever-free (without fever-reducing medications) for 24 hours and you're generally improving. Those with continuing fever or non-improving symptoms should wait to end isolation until they meet the aforementioned requirements. If you want to take a rapid COVID-19 test, wait until the end of the five-day isolation period. Those with positive tests should continue isolating until day 10. Again, avoid travel or removing your mask for at least 10 days after symptoms appear.
  • For an asymptomatic infection that continues to have no symptoms, you can end isolation after five days, as long as you mask up around others for 10 days. If you develop symptoms, the five-day isolation period will restart; day 0 would be when those symptoms appear. Follow the guidelines above for testing, travel, and visiting places without masks.
  • If you were severely ill with COVID-19, or you have a weakened immune system, the CDC suggests isolating for longer. "CDC recommends an isolation period of at least 10 and up to 20 days for people who were severely ill with COVID-19 and for people with weakened immune systems," says the organization. "Consult with your healthcare provider about when you can resume being around other people."

What 'Isolation' Means in the Family Home

Staying away from family members who test positive for COVID-19 is clearly tricky. (Um, how do you isolate from a toddler who needs care?) But to prevent the possibility of transmission to others in quarantine, an infected person should do the following:

  • Stay in a separate room
  • Use their own bathroom, if possible
  • Wear a face mask in communal areas
  • Limit contact with humans and pets
  • Prohibit unnecessary visitors
  • Not share dinnerware, towels, and other household items
  • Practice proper hand hygiene
  • Improve ventilation, if possible

During quarantine and isolation, monitor household members for symptoms of COVID-19. Alert a health care provider if anyone develops symptoms; testing may be recommended. Self-tests are easier than ever to acquire; it may be a good idea to keep rapid antigen tests on hand in case of an emergency, though you can request free PCR tests as needed.

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