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25 virology terms to help you understand outbreaks, from the common cold to COVID-19

  • Isolation

    Isolation separates those who have a disease from those who don’t, or who are not known to be sick. The public has been guided on isolating at home during the pandemic if they or their family members have symptoms. The CDC fact sheet also provides guidance on home isolation and what to do once you no longer have symptoms.

  • Social distancing

    Social distancing is when people stay away from each other, avoid all crowds, and cancel large and small events and gatherings. Social distancing effectively keeps this virus from spreading between people, and thus saves lives—particularly in the current pandemic because of its extreme contagion and high fatality rate. Distancing has included closing schools, working remotely, staying at least 6 feet apart from other people, and connecting with loved ones using online platforms, phones, and social media.

  • Quarantine

    If people have been exposed to someone with the contagious disease, quarantine separates and restricts their movement to see if they get sick. Quarantine helps ensure that if someone is already exposed, that they stay away from others. People can shed the infectious virus and infect others without knowing they’re contagious.

  • Flattening the curve

    Flattening the curve” is a key way to save many, many lives by slowing the exponential spread of the disease. This allows time for health-care workers, hospitals, and related systems to help infected people, without becoming overwhelmed by exponentially rising numbers of seriously ill patients. It is very effective, may last from weeks to months, and could save tens of thousands of lives.

  • Herd immunity

    Herd immunity happens to a population that has been exposed to an infectious agent and, as a result, becomes immune. If this happened with the novel coronavirus—but without flattening the curve—the loss of life would be catastrophic because the virus is so contagious and deadly.

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