Key Takeaways

  • If you test positive for COVID-19, you should isolate for at least five days even if you don’t have symptoms.
  • While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a five-day isolation, experts say you may have to isolate for longer depending on your symptoms.
  • In addition to isolating, experts recommend wearing a high-quality mask indoors when you’re around others, avoiding travel, and notifying any close contacts that you have COVID.

Masking, social distancing, and testing are less common now that the United States government and World Health Organization (WHO) have declared that the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer a public health emergency.

However, experts say that it’s important to keep taking steps to prevent COVID from spreading—and that includes staying home if you get sick or think you might be.

“COVID-19 remains an ongoing public health threat that we have to address alongside other infectious diseases,” Kate Grusich, CDC spokesperson, told Verywell. “It’s also important to remember that some people can still get very sick from COVID-19, so isolating when you have the virus can help protect others from potentially serious disease.”

While COVID case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths are not as high as they were at the height of the pandemic, these figures are ticking up again across the U.S. as summer comes to an end. In fact, hospital admissions have increased by 21.6% in the last week, and COVID deaths have gone up by 8.3%.

With test positivity, hospital admissions, and emergency department visits increasing, Stuart Ray, MD, an infectious disease specialist and a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told Verywell that “there is a lot of immunity out there, but it’s not yet enough to make COVID-19 completely predictable, and we don’t yet have an established seasonal pattern.”

According to Ray, isolating if you’re sick and taking other steps will once again be key to helping curb the spread of the virus as we head into the fall and winter.

“As a member of civil society, we have a duty to avoid posing unnecessary risk to others,” said Ray. “Whether you know (or strongly suspect) you have an infectious disease, we should do our best to avoid spreading it.”

How Long Do You Have to Stay Home If You Have COVID?

If you test positive for COVID, think you may have caught it, or have symptoms even if you’re not sure that you’re positive, Grusich said you should stay home away from other people for at least five days. That specific timeframe is important, as the first five days that you’re sick are when you’re most likely to spread the virus to others.

Quarantine vs Isolatation

Even after dealing with COVID for years, knowing the difference between “quarantining” and “isolating” is still a little tricky. In both cases, you’re staying away from other people—the difference is whether you know you’re sick or not.

Here’s the basic rundown on quarantine vs. isolation from the CDC:

  • If you’ve been exposed to someone who has COVID, quarantine at home. In this case, you’re trying to avoid other people while you wait to see if you’ll get sick or not.
  • If you have confirmed COVID—even if you don’t have symptoms—isolate yourself at home (that includes staying away from the people you live with).

If you do not have any symptoms of COVID or only have mild symptoms, Grusich said you should still follow the five-day isolation recommendation just in case.

This holds true even if you’re vaccinated and boosted.

“Regardless of vaccination status, you should isolate from others when you have COVID-19,” said Grusich.

How Long Do You Stay Home If You’ve Been Exposed to COVID?

If you think you may have COVID but aren’t sure, or if you don’t trust your negative test result, you should still stay away from others.

Grusich said that “you should also quarantine yourself if you are sick and suspect that you have COVID-19 but do not yet have test results.”

Ray said that if you had symptoms but are starting to feel better, you can end isolation after day five as long as you have not had a fever for 24 hours without taking any fever-reducing medications.

What if you were exposed to someone with COVID but don’t feel sick and don’t know if you’ve caught the virus? In that case, the CDC recommends that you start taking precautions right away, including wearing a mask, testing, and yes—staying home.

How to Figure Out Your COVID Isolation Timeline

Jorge Salinas, MD, an assistant professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Stanford University, told Verywell that you may have to isolate for longer than five days, depending on your symptoms.

If you have symptoms of moderate illness—including shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, coughing, or fever—you may need to stay in isolation up to day 10 after you get sick.

“Some people who are not feeling great, even past five days, should just continue staying at home. That advice applies regardless of the name of your disease or illness,” said Salinas. “If you don’t feel good, stay at home. On the other hand, if you start feeling better sooner, you may be able to end isolation earlier.”

In general, if your symptoms are not getting better, stay in isolation until they improve and you have gone a whole day without a fever.

If you get severely ill with COVID (for example, you’re hospitalized or have a weak immune system), Grusich said you’ll want to talk to your provider about how long you need to stay away from others.

What Other Steps Should You Take?

If you test positive or think that you have COVID, there are other steps you can (and should) take to prevent spreading the virus:

  • Stay at home and avoid travel.
  • Wear a high-quality and well-fitted mask if you are around others at home or in public
  • Do not go to places where you are unable to wear a mask.
  • As soon as you find out that you’re positive, tell any close contacts you’ve had recently.
  • Notify the healthcare providers that are involved in your care and talk to them about treatment.
  • Try to improve the ventilation in your home.
  • Do not share any personal household items (e.g., cups, towels, and utensils) with others.
  • Keep an eye on your symptoms and note if you’re not feeling better or start feeling worse. If you have a serious warning sign (such as trouble breathing), get emergency medical care right away.

What This Means For You

If you test positive for COVID-19 or think that you have it, isolate at home for at least five days even if you don’t have symptoms, only have mild symptoms, and/or you’ve been vaccinated. If you’re not feeling better by day five, you may need to isolate longer. If you’re not sure when to start or stop isolating, talk to your provider.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Alyssa Hui

Alyssa Hui is a St. Louis-based health and science news writer. She was the 2020 recipient of the Midwest Broadcast Journalists Association Jack Shelley Award.

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