If you’ve potentially been exposed to the new coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), you may have been told to self-isolate.
It’s a strategy that health agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and national governments are recommending to help limit the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.
But who exactly needs to self-isolate and what does it involve?
Who should self-isolate?
Self-isolation rules may change as the COVID-19 outbreak continues. They may also differ between different countries and regions.
In the UK, for example, self-isolation is currently recommended for:
- people waiting for a COVID-19 test result
- people with symptoms of COVID-19, such as a high temperature, a new and continuous cough, or a cough that's getting worse
- people known to have been in close contact with someone affected by COVID-19
- people returning from areas where there is a greater risk of exposure to the new coronavirus (here is an up-to-date list of these areas)
If you don't know if you need to self-isolate, check the recommendations for the country or region you're currently in.
Most countries have a specific phone number that you can call if you're worried that you may have been exposed to the new coronavirus. You should call this number for advice about self-isolation.
What is self-isolation?
If a health professional has told you to self-isolate and you don't have any symptoms, you should stay at home and avoid contact with other people for 14 days.
If you do have symptoms, you should avoid contact with others for 7 days.
If you live with someone who has symptoms of COVID-19, you should self-isolate for 14 days from the day the person started having symptoms.
When self-isolating, you must:
- stay at home and only allow people who live with you to stay
- keep away from other people as much as possible – try not to be in the same room as others at the same time
- avoid inviting visitors into your home
- stay in a well-ventilated room with a window that can be opened, but keep the door closed
- clean toilets and bathrooms regularly
- use a separate bathroom to others in the house, if possible
- use a bathroom rota if you only have 1 bathroom - make sure you use the bathroom last and then thoroughly clean the bathroom after use
- use separate towels and bedding from anyone else in the household
- ask friends, family members or delivery services to do your grocery shopping and carry out other errands for you
- tell delivery drivers to leave items outside your house for collection if you order items online
- avoid your pets - if you do come into contact with them, always wash your hands before and after touching them
- not share dishes, drinking glasses and cutlery with anyone else
- wash glasses, plates, cutlery, pots and other kitchen utensils with soap and water - dishwashers can be used to clean crockery and cutlery
Don’t go to work or any public places, and avoid using any form of public transport, including taxis.
If you live in shared accommodation, such as student accommodation or a hotel, you should still avoid contact with others. You can do this by:
- staying in your room with the door closed
- staying out of shared kitchens while others are using it
- only using communal kitchens, bathrooms and living areas when necessary. If you've been given a face mask, wear it in communal areas
- eating your meals alone in your room
- using a dishwasher to clean and dry your used plates, cups and cutlery - if you don’t have access to a dishwasher, wash these items by hand using washing up soap and warm water. Use a separate tea towel to dry them thoroughly
Other actions to take while self-isolating
Even though you'll be avoiding direct contact with others while self-isolating, you should still maintain good hygiene to reduce the risk of spreading the infection.
You can do this by:
- wearing a face mask (if you've been given one) when you’re in the same room as others and when visiting a healthcare provider. If you can’t wear a face mask, the people who live with you should wear one while they’re in the same room as you
- covering your mouth and nose with a disposable tissue when you cough or sneeze
- throwing tissues into a plastic waste bag as soon as you’ve used them
- washing your hands often with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds. Rinse and dry them thoroughly
- not touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
Some people have a higher risk of becoming seriously ill if they develop COVID-19. These include:
- older people - aged 70 or over
- people with long-term conditions
- pregnant women
- people with a weakened immune system
If you live with anyone who falls into any of these 'at-risk' groups, try to find somewhere else for them to stay for 14 days.
Time away from work
If you've been asked to self-isolate, you must stay away from work. Speak to your employer and let them know that you need to stay at home and out of contact with other people for the next 14 days.
Different employers have different policies for staff members who have to self-isolate, but if you’re well, you may be able to work from home.
What to do if you develop symptoms
Seek medical care immediately if you develop a cough, fever, shortness of breath or if you feel like your illness is getting worse.
Most countries have a dedicated phone number for people worried that they may have been exposed to the new coronavirus. Call this number (or an ambulance if it’s an emergency) and let them know that you’ve been asked to self-isolate because of the new coronavirus.
If you think you may have coronavirus, you can use our COVID-19 Symptom Mapper to check your symptoms and compare them with others around the world.
This should give you a better understanding of how the illness is affecting you and will help us to map the spread of the outbreak.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020 [cited 12 March 2020]. Available here.
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Advice for home isolation [Internet]. GOV.UK. 2020 [cited 12 March 2020]. Available here.
COVID-19 (novel coronavirus) - Self-isolation [Internet]. Ministry of Health NZ. 2020 [cited 12 March 2020]. Available here.
Editor B. Coronavirus (COVID-19): What is self-isolation and why is it important? - Public health matters [Internet]. Publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk. 2020 [cited 12 March 2020]. Available here.