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Tag — you’re sick!

MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at CovidQ@mit.edu, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.

Ten days ago, I tested positive for COVID-19 after symptoms that began two days earlier. My husband’s symptoms started a few days after that, and he also tested positive. Now, five days later, he’s feeling a lot better — just a little fatigued — and was planning to go back to work tomorrow. But just this morning, our teenage son tells me that he has a bad headache and scratchy throat, so I have no doubt he has it as well. Our 12-year-old daughter doesn’t have any symptoms yet, but I figure it’s only a matter of time.

So, I’m completely recovered and living with one person who is mostly recovered, but we’re living with someone else who just got sick and another who probably will. Can one of them reinfect me? Can they reinfect each other? Is it possible that we could keep passing it back and forth and end up in a never-ending household quarantine?

Illustration of a person with a worried expression and question marks floating around their head. A thought bubble above their head contains that person and two family members looking sick with arrows between them indicating that they are passing an infection back and forth

As the more transmissible Omicron variant sweeps through households, including vaccinated households, we’ve been getting questions like this one more frequently.

Fortunately for you and others dealing with multiple infections in the same household, the answer to all of your questions is “no.” You and your husband are free to end your self-isolation now, according to CDC guidelines. You don’t have to worry about carrying the virus to people outside of your household, because you can’t transmit the virus unless you are actively infected. And since you and your family members were almost certainly infected with the same strain of the virus, you won’t pass it around again.

In this way, COVID-19 is like the common cold, which is also a coronavirus. When you get a cold, your body manufactures antibodies to fight off the virus. And with those antibodies on full alert, you’re protected from reinfection for some period of time. So even if someone in your household catches your cold a few days later, and then another family member starts sneezing a few days after that, they won’t make you sick again. You’ll keep getting better, while the cold virus runs its course in your unlucky, sniffling family members.

But while you won’t pass COVID-19 back and forth within your household now, there is no guarantee that you won’t be reinfected at some point in the future. When it comes to the common cold, research shows that people can catch the same cold virus within 12 months. We don’t know the level of immunity a person will have after recovering from infection with the Omicron variant or how long it might last. There’s evidence that Omicron is more than five times more likely than earlier variants to reinfect people who had recovered from a previous COVID-19 illness. While a recent South African study appears to show that infection with Omicron greatly increases immunity against the earlier variant, Delta, there’s no guarantee that a future variant won’t have some ability to evade any immunity your family has gained with your recent infections.

So, the good news is that, in the short run, you won’t keep ping-ponging your current illness back and forth across your household. But once you’ve all recovered, you should continue to take the usual precautions. Of course, the best thing you can do to protect yourselves is to make sure you are up to date on your COVID vaccinations. There’s evidence that vaccination after recovery from natural infection may be much more protective against future infection than either vaccination or infection alone. So, get vaccinated, if you haven’t already, and get a booster when you’re eligible (five months after your second mRNA vaccine or two months after your first J&J). In the meantime, take care of each other, and we hope you all get well soon!

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