What Are the Differences Between Social Distancing, Self-Quarantining and Self-Isolating?

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jul 24, 2020 8:20:29 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re facing a barrage of near-constant information — and a ton of misinformation. Be it the advice of medical experts or the guidelines being set forth by your local and federal government officials, it all feels important to take in, which can overwhelm even the most detail-oriented individuals among us.

However, if we want to fully understand what’s going on, it’s important to get the terminology right. Although some brush off word choice as "just semantics," correctly defining terms like "social distancing" and "self-isolating" matters. After all, a lack of specificity can lead to misinformation — and that inaccuracy can breed panic. Here’s a quick guide to some of the pandemic-related terms you’ll be hearing over the next few weeks.

Social Distancing, Self-Monitoring and Self-Quarantining

Amid the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidelines for "community mitigation strategies" — essentially, ways to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). One of the most effective ways to thwart the proliferation of the virus is to practice social distancing, but many are confused about what that term means. Epidemiologists use the term social distancing to refer to the conscious effort taken by individuals to reduce close contact between themselves and others, which will prevent community transmission of the virus.

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Photo Courtesy: Mark Kauzlarich/Bloomberg/Getty Images

That means stay home and avoid going out as much as possible so that you don’t become a vector for the virus — a.k.a. an asymptomatic carrier who, unknowingly, passes the virus on to others. Even if you feel well, social distancing helps protect more vulnerable folks in our communities, such as those who are elderly, immunosuppressed or immunocompromised. By practicing social distancing — and staying away from groups of other people — you put the health and safety of others before your desire to be social, which can severely curb the number of COVID-19 cases and ensure hospitals and other facilities aren’t overwhelmed.

If you have potentially come into contact with a carrier, you should practice self-monitoring, which includes watching for signs of the virus — cough, shortness of breath — and checking your temperature. NPR provides a great hypothetical example: Let’s say you attended a large conference recently. Well, Dr. Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer for the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, explains that if "[t]he person speaking at the podium was later diagnosed, and you were in the audience — you’re not considered at risk." Despite the low risk of transmission, you’d still monitor your health and check for symptoms, just in case.


However, Dr. Plescia is quick to point out that in this hypothetical scenario, if you "had a long conversation [with that person] or that person coughed or sneezed on you… [you] would then self-quarantine." That means self-quarantine is a step up from the more cautious self-monitoring scenario. In this case, you’ve had direct contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus and are waiting to see if you develop symptoms. If you’re self-quarantining, you should stay home and avoid other people as much as possible for a 14-day period. Living with others? Try and limit that contact by sleeping in a separate room (if possible) and sanitizing shared spaces and items as frequently as possible.

Self-Isolation, Shelter-in-Place and Quarantine

The next term on our list is "self-isolation." In this scenario, you have tested positive for the virus and must take even more precautions than you would when self-quarantining. Whether at home or in a hospital, you should essentially eliminate contact with others. If you have to travel between home and a treatment center, wearing a mask is crucial to protect others from the virus-containing droplets you’re liable to spread.

Shanghai Quarantine
Photo Courtesy: TPG/Getty Images News/Getty Images

As our local and federal governments try to curb the risk of transmission, you may hear a few other terms come into play. For example, on March 16, officials in California’s Bay Area — where COVID-19 cases have spiked — issued a "shelter-in-place" decree, meaning regardless of your status, you should stay home. Residents are allowed to get some fresh air outside (preferably near their homes and away from others), and they can still buy groceries, pick up prescriptions and travel to the doctor. A step up from this scenario would be a quarantine,"wherein officials would place a city, county or state on lockdown, meaning travel in and out of the area would be strictly prohibited.

Remember: Even if you feel you aren’t at risk, taking the proper precautions — and understanding the difference between these terms — can help you better protect your household and your community.