Governments around the world are advising that people use physical distancing, also known as social distancing, and self-isolation to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. There are some key differences between these approaches, however.

The novel coronavirus, or SARS-CoV-2, can cause a respiratory condition known as coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). Some studies predict that roughly 50–60% of the population will contract SARS-CoV-2 at some point.

To slow the rate of transmission, governments in several different countries are enforcing measures such as physical distancing and self-isolation.

This article will explain the differences between physical distancing and self-isolation, as well as when each might be appropriate. It will also look at how these measures can impact individuals and society at large.

Language Matters

Although “social distancing” means keeping a physical distance between oneself and others, it also implies keeping an emotional distance. However, during a pandemic, it is important for a person to stay connected with their friends, family, and community.

For this reason, we are starting to use the term “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing.” We believe that a person can stay physically distanced while maintaining, and even strengthening, their social connections.

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Physical distancing means keeping 6 feet, or 2 meters, away from people who do not live in one’s household.

Physical distancing aims to slow the spread of the virus by keeping people away from each other.

SARS-CoV-2 is highly contagious. This means that it can spread easily from person to person, usually in droplets that are expelled when someone coughs or sneezes. These droplets can also live on hard surfaces.

Physical distancing means:

  • not going to large events such as sports games, music festivals, or theater shows
  • not going to social gatherings, such as parties or weddings
  • not meeting with friends or family
  • not gathering in public places such as shopping malls, bars, restaurants, or parks
  • keeping at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from people who do not live in the same household

The World Health Organization (WHO) have advised everyone to physically distance themselves from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.

Some countries, including the United Kingdom, France, and Italy, have asked all citizens to practice physical distancing at all times.

Mask recommendations

The CDC recommends that people who are not fully vaccinated wear cloth face masks in indoor public settings. If case numbers are high in the area, it may be best to wear a mask outdoors, as well.

This will help slow the spread of the virus from people who do not know that they have contracted it, including those who are asymptomatic. Note: It is critical that surgical masks and N95 respirators are reserved for healthcare workers.

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Self-isolation aims to keep people who may have COVID-19 away from others. This should stop them from passing the virus on.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have asked anyone in the United States who develops possible COVID-19 symptoms to self-isolate. Such symptoms include:

  • fever
  • a cough
  • difficulty breathing

Self-isolation means:

  • staying at home for 7 days, unless to seek urgent medical care
  • avoiding public transport when seeking medical care
  • not having visitors
  • trying to stay in separate rooms, if living in a shared household
  • asking delivery drivers to leave items outside

During self-isolation, people should also be:

  • staying in a well-ventilated room that has an opening window
  • using different towels to others living in the same house
  • regularly cleaning toilets and bathrooms
  • washing cutlery and dishes thoroughly

Most people with COVID-19 will experience symptoms that do not require specialist care. These symptoms may include:

  • a high temperature
  • a new, continuous cough
  • shortness of breath

However, if a person develops any of the following symptoms, they or their caregiver should call for emergency assistance straight away:

  • difficulty breathing
  • persistent pain in the chest
  • a feeling of pressure in the chest
  • confusion
  • blue lips
  • a bluish face

Anyone who has had exposure to SARS-CoV-2 or who tests positive for the virus may need to go into quarantine.

Being in quarantine means that a person is separated from others and that their movements are restricted. This stops the disease from spreading.

An infectious disease outbreak can cause anxiety, worry, or fear. Lots of people may worry about their own health and that of their family.

Having to take time off of work can also lead to financial worries.

Grocery shopping can be stressful during physical distancing and very difficult during self-isolation.

This can give rise to feelings of:

  • concern
  • loneliness
  • anger
  • boredom
  • frustration
  • anxiety
  • depression

Some tips for dealing with physical isolation include:

  • staying up to date but trying to limit news intake
  • looking for trusted sources of information, such as the CDC and the WHO
  • staying connected to friends and family by using the internet
  • trying to stay active
  • trying to build a structured daily routine
  • practicing breathing exercises
  • practicing yoga or meditation
  • trying calming activities, such as taking a warm bath or reading a book
  • finding out what support is available from local authorities and nonprofit groups

Coronavirus resources

For more advice on COVID-19 prevention and treatment, visit our coronavirus hub.

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Countries around the world are using physical distancing and self-isolation to try to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.

There is currently no vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. This means that physical distancing and self-isolation are the best ways for people to keep themselves and their communities safe.

These measures will help prevent people from contracting the virus and prevent them from passing it on to others.

By slowing the spread of the virus, public health officials are aiming to ensure that healthcare systems have enough staff, equipment, and beds to care for people who fall seriously ill.

This is especially important for people at higher risk of developing COVID-19, including:

  • older adults
  • people with autoimmune conditions such as lupus
  • people with respiratory conditions such as asthma
  • pregnant women

SARS-CoV-2 causes COVID-19, a potentially fatal respiratory disease. Older adults, people with lupus, those with asthma, and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.

There is currently no vaccine available for SARS-CoV-2. The best way to prevent it from spreading is to observe the physical distancing and self-isolation measures. It is also vital that people wash their hands often.

Physical distancing means keeping at least 6 feet away from people who are coughing or sneezing. The WHO have advised everyone to do this.

Many countries have taken this further and asked people to stay away from anyone who does not live with them at all times.

The CDC have also asked anyone who develops symptoms of COVID-19 to self-isolate. This means not going out and not receiving any visitors.

Self-isolation can result in feelings of anxiety and depression, but there are things a person can do to take care of their mental health during this time.