Self-isolation is recommended for travellers who may have been exposed to some infectious diseases, such as COVID-19 during the ongoing pandemic. Breaking your self-isolation could spread the disease to other people.
This page is mainly about voluntary self-isolation. Although the same principles apply if you are in compulsory quarantine or isolating because you do have the disease, you must then follow all the official instructions that you have been given, including any monitoring arrangements, or you risk deportation, a fine or a prison sentence.
How long to self-isolate
Follow the advice from relevant authorities. The amount of time you should self-isolate depends on what disease you want to avoid spreading. The traditional length of quarantine, from which the word stems, was forty days. Isolation is recommended only for some diseases.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, health authorities generally recommend that travelers from severely affected areas self-isolate until it has been 14 days since they left the affected area. In some countries this period can be reduced by taking a COVID-19 test; for instance, on arrival in Iceland you can either quarantine for 14 days or get tested, quarantine for five days, get tested again, and then end the quarantine early if both tests are negative.
- See also: Returning home
Find out what procedures are in place. Do you need to pre-register your travel history and lodging plans before you arrive? Will you go through a health check at the border? Is there anything you can do to protect people you might encounter on your way home, such as airport staff? Avoid crowded public transport (if you are in mandatory quarantine, you might be forbidden from using it), and you might want to keep that taxi driver and later customers safe. Wear a mask, wash your hands often, do not unnecessarily touch objects such as door knobs, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough, and keep your distance (1–2 m/3-6 ft for COVID-19). When you talk, respiratory droplets travel farther and more densely than when just breathing, so avoid talking and be especially careful with the distance when you do talk. A cloth or mask covering your mouth and nose will help lessen spreading of such droplets, but only to a degree.
You might have more than one place to choose from, such as if you have a summer house or you could stay in a friend's apartment. If you travelled alone you may not want to live with your family while you may spread the disease. A country house may be better than a city apartment, as you might be able to walk outside without being close to anyone; however, you may risk not having friends, services, or well-equipped hospitals nearby if you need help. Consider the availability of delivery services, Internet connections and items you may need. If you have a good neighbour, check whether they are at home and could help you without being too burdened.
Another aspect to consider is how you will like your stay: a hotel room will feel very cramped and dull at latest after a few days, even if you get anything you need delivered to the door. Ideally you have more than one room to your disposal and possibilities to get out. Being able to take a walk in a nice environment is hugely valuable, and even a balcony can save your good temper. A home with a bookshelf and houseplants may also be better than an apartment rented with only the essentials.
If you'll be self-isolating in a commercial accommodation, try to book one with basic kitchen appliances so you won't have to live on takeout for two weeks. This may be the time to splurge for a larger room (or a suite) to walk around in, a balcony for fresh air, or even a vacation rental with a private pool or garden to get some exercise. For a two-week stay, a spacious short-term rental might be cheaper than a hotel room.
Pack carefully—normally if you forget some little thing, you can just stop by a corner store after you arrive, but in this case make sure you'll have everything you need. Will you need laundry detergent? Toilet paper? Electrical outlet converters? If you'll need a local SIM card and/or payment system to have food delivered, you may need to arrange them in advance or at the airport.
If you stopped home services (such as internet) before a long trip, contact your service provider and ask to have those turned on again.
If you are going away at a time when self-isolation may be necessary on you return, make some preparations before you leave, which could include having a good supply of non-perishable food in the cupboard. On the other hand, travel just for fun in such a time is not a good idea as you potentially could bring the disease with you from one part of the world to another when leaving or returning.
You could also have a friend do the preparations in your home, before you return and would put them at risk. They can buy also fresh food for the first few days. Could they also bring something to keep you busy without being online? Books, games, a musical instrument, drawing and painting utensils? Something for working ergonomics and exercise?
If you suspect that you have been exposed, contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible, even before your return. You may also wish to contact your embassy or consulate. In some countries, COVID-19 is considered "notifiable", meaning you are legally obliged to inform the authorities about it and any relevant history.
Take your temperature twice a day. If you develop symptoms during self-isolation, you should contact your healthcare provider by telephone. In the case of a significant outbreak, you may be advised not to contact them unnecessarily, as they may be overworked. In case of emergency, call an ambulance, and tell them that you've been travelling recently. Watch out for health problems that may have nothing to do with the reason for your self-isolation, such as symptoms of deep vein thrombosis, a heart attack, or travellers' diarrhea.
If you live with other people, stay away from them as much as possible during your isolation period. Ideally you have a room where you spend most of the time and where nobody else needs to enter. Keep visits to common areas short, perhaps keep clear of the kitchen altogether. For COVID-19 keeping a minimum of 1–2 m/3–6 ft distance and sharing rooms for less than 15 min is recommended (if you stay there for longer times while the others are away, ventilate well afterwards). Wash your hands frequently, wear a mask when in common areas, and keep the house well ventilated. Don't share items like dishes, towels, or pillows. If you share a toilet, use separate toilet paper and towel (and soap?), and clean touched surfaces after use.
If you have children, you have to trade off between not spreading the disease and not making the situation too awkward for them. For COVID-19, positive effects of breastfeeding are judged to outweigh the risks.
If your family members are not themselves home-isolating, they are in most countries allowed to continue as normal unless you or they develop symptoms.
If you're in a hotel, ask housekeeping not to come in for the duration of your quarantine. Consider asking them to leave fresh linens, towels, and toilet paper outside your door.
Being in isolation can be very stressful mentally. Having things to do and keeping in contact without getting physically close alleviates that to some extent, but not necessarily enough. Talk about it and try to find working solutions, possibly compromises.
Get what you need
What you need to have and to do depends upon your situation. Are you self-isolating at home or in a hotel room? Do you live in the city, in the suburbs, in the country? Do you live by yourself, with people who are traveling with you, or with people who haven't been exposed? Do you have a large house or a tiny apartment?
Food and other supplies
Delivery services are your new best friends. Otherwise, ask your friends or neighbours to drop off the items at the front door just before notifying you to pick them up to avoid contact.
The world of e-commerce is vast. You can get digital goods and deliveries of physical items of all kinds: for instance, try looking for new ways to online shop such as independent bookstores with websites instead of the typical big sellers and you may find recommendations that the Big Data algorithms would never suggest. Note that you will not be able to go to customs to clear that package – be careful about items that would require international shipping.
Laundry and household needs
If you've got a washing machine at home and are alone there, then dealing with your laundry after a trip is pretty straightforward. If you don't, then consider whether you need to wash laundry during your self-isolation period. If the time period is short, or you have a lot of clothes, you might be able to postpone it. If it's necessary, consider:
- washing clothes by hand, like you might do in a hotel room,
- wearing clothes for longer between washes.
Having others do your laundry may put them at risk. If you share a washing machine, avoid shaking your laundry before washing, and do not touch clean items that others will use.
If you use a laundry service, you should check how long the germs will survive. It might be enough to quarantine the laundry for a few days before sending it away.
Make sure you have sufficient medication for managing your chronic illness (diabetes, high cholesterol) for the entire self-isolation period, also factor in any associated supplies you would normally get for your condition. If you know in advance that you will not have enough medication or supplies, call a local pharmacy (or your healthcare provider) and determine if they can offer direct shipment.
You might have been infected, and then your isolation in-case might change to isolation because of infection. You don't want to arrange your other medications as first thing when getting that news, so have enough for a somewhat longer period.
Wake up in the morning as usual, have regular meals, plan your day. Consider writing out a schedule (and following it!) so the time doesn't feel wasted and you avoid the sense of one day aimlessly blurring into the next. Following a routine is especially important if you're jetlagged—the lack of stimulation and activity may make it harder to adjust to the new time zone.
Stay in touch with people. Call friends and family members, especially if any of them are stuck at home too. Don't underestimate the value of human interaction in brightening your day, and theirs, too.
Work from home if you can. Even if yours is normally an in-person job, there may be things you can do from home. Watch the continuing education videos that you never quite have time for, or work your way through that online program about workplace harassment that your company wants everyone to go through. You may also have backlogs directly connected to your daily job – and for many jobs there may be planning that could be done in advance.
If you're not used to working from home, it may feel more lonely than working on site, but working from home will give you some contact with other people. It also lets you feel productive and fills the time.
Don't neglect ergonomics. Your kitchen table and its chairs are probably a lot worse than the desk at your workplace, and a laptop is much worse than a desktop computer. There are tricks to get them to work better, but you should also make sure to follow all advice about rising up every so often, stretching, having a good posture, and so on. Most of these only require breaks for a few seconds or half a minute, but also use the times when you go fetching coffee or visit the toilet to do a little gymnastics with bigger movements, important for blood flow, stuck nerves etc.
Keep the windows open for fresh air (this also helps reduce transmission of COVID-19 if there's more than one person in the house) in warm weather, or now and then for 10–30 minutes in the heating season. If you have a private deck or garden, go outside every day. In some places you can go also for a longer walk without undue risk of meeting people or otherwise put them at risk.
Develop a plan for staying physically active so you don't spend the entire day sitting down. You probably walk quite some on normal work days even if taking the car: to work, at work, to the shop and in the shop, visiting friends. Even if you don't leave your home, get gentle exercise every day. If you search online, it's easy to find lists of exercises and workout routines you can do without leaving your house. The World Health Organization has published a guide to staying physically active during self-quarantine.
Although you may want to stay in touch with events, it may be better to moderate the amount of news that you look at, and stick to reliable news sources. If you normally watch the news once a day then stick to this schedule and do something else, rather than having the 24-hour news on continuously.
Avoid using your computer/tablet/smartphone for more time than necessary. You will need them to keep in contact with the outside world and many will need them for working, but you could put them away to read a physical book instead of the e-book, and you could find other things to do than to surf the net.
Housecleaning and organizing can be a mixed blessing. If you try to de-clutter, then you may end up with a pile of stuff you don't want, but can't get rid of, because you can't leave home right now. On the other hand, if you are self-isolating for more than a couple of days, then cleaning is productive and can expand to fill the available time (and if you did catch this thing, then wouldn't you rather be sick in a clean and orderly home?). Consider "zero waste" tasks such as sorting photos and updating financial records.
Do you have some hobby you never had time for? The guitar collecting dust, drawing, keeping a diary, gardening, wood working. Could you make presents yourself for somebody, instead of having the panic the week before Christmas (or at least plan what to buy). You could write real letters (and send them when they have also been quarantined, check whether the germs can survive).
Even at home you may want to take a vacation. Nobody will laugh at you if you do a bit of playing. Make the bed carefully, with towels and a piece or two of fine chocolate, and all too small refrigerated drink bottles in a cupboard nearby (luckily you don't have to pay any extreme prices). Have some extra towels and a new piece of soap. Go to a plentiful breakfast. Then off you go on virtual museum tours and have a nice dinner with (non-)live music. This becomes fun at least if there are two of you – but you could use the net to share your experience.
If you break your self-isolation, you may spread the infection to anyone you see, and even to people who touch the same doorknob or enter the same room later. Before leaving, consider whether you truly need to leave. It's unethical to expose other people to a potentially deadly disease just because you're bored or want to get out of the house. Besides, if your self-isolation is required by the government, you may face criminal liability if the self-isolation requirement is broken.
If going out is unavoidable, then stay away from others as much as possible. Don't go to school, work, restaurants, or other places with lots of people. It might help to stay outdoors as much as possible, and walking or driving your own car instead of taking the bus or a ride hailing service. Be out of your home for the least amount of time possible. Wash your hands before leaving, wear a face mask, consider wearing gloves, and be careful about how you sneeze and cough.
Ending your isolation
The ideal case is that you stay isolated for the recommended period, stay perfectly healthy, and then you're done. However, if you develop symptoms of the disease, then you will need to stay in isolation until you're no longer contagious. If you develop symptoms, contact a healthcare provider by phone instead of going to the hospital. Tell them your symptoms and your travel history.
When your self-isolation is finished, you'll probably be dying for some outdoor physical activity, but keep it light for the first couple days. Strenuous exercise after two weeks of being relatively inactive might injure you.