There has been significant amount of talk surrounding social distancing. This has led to confusion around what it is. Sometimes, it’s been used interchangeably with self-quarantine, but are they really the same thing?

Social distancing, or physical distancing, is taking measures to increase the physical space between people. These measures can be done by individuals on their own or mandated by local or state governments. Typically, it involves some form of avoiding crowds or crowded spaces. Many things fall under into this group, such as sporting events, cruises, festivals, concerts, going to a bar or eating in restaurants. In order to help stop spread of an illness, this means these events are often canceled or closed. It can also mean working from home or visiting with loved ones via electronic devices. This is different from self-quarantining.

Self-quarantining is when you isolate yourself from others because you’ve been exposed and are at risk for developing it. This is also called self-isolation. You could be at risk for exposure if you have recently traveled to a part of the world where there is a known outbreak or if you’ve come into direct contact with an infected person (sometimes, you don’t know that this has happened). The length of time self-quarantining is required depends on the infectious organism. For COVID-19, it’s at least 14 days. While you’re self-quarantining, there are certain things that you should be doing, such as staying at home and not having visitors. If you live with others, you should stay at least 6 feet away from them and not share towels or utensils. It’s also essential to practice good hygiene and wash your hands frequently using proper techniques (see our Handwashing article). After the allotted time has passed and if you don’t have symptoms, your doctor will give you guidance on how to return to your normal routine.

Isolation is used for when some is infected and contagious, so they are kept away from others who are not. You can isolate at home, which would be very similar to self-quarantining except that if you live with others, you would need to take added precautions to protect them. However, most isolation is done in a healthcare setting, such as at a hospital. In this type of setting, infectious individuals are kept separate from non-infected patients. In addition, hospital staff wear protective equipment while treated the infected individual and remove, and in some cases, put on a new set of protective equipment before taking care of the next patient. This is designed to prevent the spread of the organism within the hospital from one patient to the next.

By practicing social distancing measures, it decreases the need to have people self-quarantine because there are less people exposed. It also decreases the need to isolate individuals since there are less infections as well. So, while social distancing measures are inconvenient and have altered our lives in many ways, they’re designed to help control the spread.