An illustration of two closed doors and a third door that's open with a microbe peeking out.
Illustration: PGN

Love what you see? Follow PGN so you never miss a story.

Leer en español

What you need to know

  • The CDC recommends isolating for at least five days after a positive test or the start of symptoms. But there’s a good chance you’re still infectious after the five-day mark.
  • It’s safest to keep isolating for up to 10 days unless you receive a negative rapid test result.
  • If you continue to have symptoms, wear a mask and avoid situations where you could come in contact with high-risk people.

CDC guidance around COVID-19 isolation has changed several times in the past two years. So it’s no surprise that people have questions about the timeline for ending isolation after getting infected. The answers largely depend on the specific situation and individuals’ priorities. 

What is the CDC’s latest guidance on isolation?

You should stay home and isolate from others for at least five days after a positive test or the start of symptoms, the CDC says. This applies to everyone, regardless of vaccination status. 

After these initial five days, the CDC’s guidance can be a little confusing. If you are fever-free for 24 hours and your symptoms are improving, you can end isolation after five days. If you never had symptoms, you can also end isolation after five days. But in both cases, you should wear a mask, avoid travel, and refrain from seeing high-risk people for a full 10 days. 

If you are immunocompromised or got very sick from COVID-19, the CDC recommends isolating for at least 10 days. 

Is five days enough time to stop being infectious?

You are likely to no longer be infectious five days after a positive test or the start of symptoms. But some preliminary studies have found that people infected with Omicron still have virus levels high enough to be contagious after the five-day mark. 

This is why it’s important to receive a negative rapid test before leaving isolation. Although they may be slightly delayed in detecting the virus at the onset of infection, rapid tests are generally a reliable indicator for whether someone is infectious at the time of taking the test.

What should I do if my rapid test comes back positive?

Technically, the CDC says you can leave isolation if you’ve completed the five days, as long as you wear a mask. But for the sake of public health and keeping others safe, it’s best to isolate for up to 10 days as long as you are testing positive on a rapid test. 

Multiple studies have shown that there is very little if any transmission after day 10, unless you are immunocompromised. The virus can live on for much longer in people who are immunocompromised, leading the CDC to recommend at least 10 days of isolation and some experts to advise waiting 20 days to exit isolation.

How can I balance individual benefit and community risk?

The CDC’s shortened isolation guidance attempts to minimize public health risk while also considering the need for people to return to society. But it’s best not to view the five-day isolation period as a one-size-fits-all recommendation. 

Each individual’s situation will be different at the five-day mark depending on factors such as the severity of infection, the urgency of responsibilities that have been put on pause, and the vulnerability of the infected person’s social network. Going forward, it’s largely up to individuals to make their own informed judgements about whether it’s safe to leave isolation.

In general, testing is a good measure to use for ending isolation. You can keep your community safe by wearing a mask and avoiding contact with high-risk people for as long as you display symptoms. Any non-essential activities such as social gatherings or travel should also be put on hold if there is any chance that you are still contagious.