COVID-19 Positive? Here’s How to Self-Isolate

November 12, 2020

Clinical Contributors to this Story

Kenneth Sable, M.D. contributes to topics such as Emergency Medicine.

COVID-19 cases are rising again in many parts of the world, with projections suggesting that more people will become infected this fall and winter.

If you have tested positive for COVID-19 – whether you experience mild symptoms, serious illness or no symptoms at all – it’s important to self-isolate, to avoid passing the virus to others. How long you should isolate varies, based on several factors that can be determined by you and your doctor.

Kenneth Sable, M.D., southern region president and emergency medicine specialist at Hackensack Meridian Health shares advice on how to isolate properly:

What to do during isolation

Because COVID-19 is contagious, and since no vaccine or treatment is available yet, isolating is one way to help stop the spread of the virus. If you test positive for COVID-19, stop going to work, running errands, interacting with friends or relatives and isolate at home.

If you test positive for COVID-19 and you live with other people, take the following steps:

  • avoid all people and pets in your home as much as possible
  • stay in a separate room from everyone else (such as a bedroom), including mealtimes
  • use a different bathroom than everyone else, if possible
  • clean the surfaces in your bedroom and bathroom daily, if you’re able to do so
  • keep a window open for air circulation
  • if you normally care for children or older adults, have someone else take over, if possible
  • if you must interact with others, wear a mask over your nose and mouth and keep your distance
  • don’t prepare food for others

When to stop isolating

To determine when to stop self-isolating, consider how COVID-19 affected you.

If you tested positive but never experienced symptoms, you may stop isolating:

  • 10 days after your positive test, if you continue to remain symptom-free, OR
  • if you get re-tested and have two negative tests at least 24 hours apart

If you had COVID-19 symptoms, you may stop isolating:

  • 10 days after your positive test, if you haven’t had a fever for at least 24 hours (without taking fever-reducing medication) and if your symptoms are improving
  • if you have a compromised immune system, your doctor may want you to isolate for longer

If you were hospitalized for COVID-19 and are sent home to recover, you may stop isolating:

  • 10 to 20 days after the onset of your symptoms, unless your doctor recommends a different length of time
  • if your doctor recommends COVID-19 testing, you may stop isolating sooner if you have two negative tests at least 24 hours apart

“If you lost your sense of smell or taste, it’s okay to stop isolating if your other symptoms improve and this one doesn’t, because it may take a while to recover those senses,” says Dr. Sable.

The difference between isolation and quarantine

You may be inclined to use the words “isolation” and “quarantine” interchangeably because they both refer to people staying at home, but they have different meanings.

People who self-quarantine have unknown COVID-19 status but are at risk because they’ve interacted with someone COVID-positive or traveled where COVID-19 levels are high. They can end their quarantine when they receive results of a COVID-19 test or if two weeks pass after exposure and they don’t develop symptoms.

People who self-isolate have a positive COVID-19 status. If you were quarantining and receive a positive test, your status changes from quarantining to isolating.

Overall, each person’s course with COVID-19 is different. Everyone affected should talk to their doctor about a plan that makes sense for them.

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.