What Should You Do if You Get a Breakthrough COVID Infection?

COVID-19 test.

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Key Takeaways

  • Fully vaccinated individuals who were exposed to the virus should get tested in three to five days, whether they have symptoms or not.
  • However, the duration of isolation can vary depending on the symptoms and severity of your case.
  • The vaccines are meant to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death.

As more people get vaccinated against COVID-19, “breakthrough infections” are expected to become more common, especially with the surge of the highly contagious Delta variant.

A breakthrough infection occurs when a fully vaccinated individual gets infected. You're considered fully vaccinated at least 14 days after receiving all recommended doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Breakthrough cases are not unique to COVID-19. Many vaccines do not provide 100% protection against disease, but this doesn't mean they aren't effective. If you do get infected after vaccination, you likely won't experience a severe case and require hospitalization.

But what should you do if you've been exposed to COVID-19 or test positive after being fully vaccinated? Here's what you need to know.

When Should You Get Tested After Exposure?

If you've been exposed to someone with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection, it's still important to get tested.

“Vaccinated people can still get infected and unknowingly transmit the virus to others,” Carlos R. Oliveira, MD, PhD, Yale Medicine pediatric infectious diseases specialist and assistant professor at the Yale School of Medicine, tells Verywell. “If a fully vaccinated individual has close contact with someone with known COVID-19, they should wear a mask until they can get tested.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines “close contact” as being within six feet of someone who has COVID-19 for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more within a 24-hour period.

“Given how rapidly Delta replicates, most infected individuals will have a positive PCR test after 72 hours of being infected,” Oliveira says. “The recommendation for fully vaccinated individuals is to get tested three to five days after exposure.”

There’s no need to quarantine yet if you’re fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, but you should still get tested within three to five days of exposure.

“You should also wear a mask while in public or around others for 14 days after the exposure or until you get a negative test result,” Ashley Lipps, MD, infectious diseases physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Verywell. “You may also want to consider avoiding close contact with those who are at high risk of complications from COVID-19 altogether, if possible, such as the elderly, immunocompromised, etc.”

What If You Test Positive?

If you're fully vaccinated and test negative after potential exposure, you can resume your daily activities. But those with a positive result should isolate.

“If you test positive for COVID, you should isolate for 10 days starting with the date of onset of symptoms as long as your fever has resolved and other symptoms are improving,” Lipps says. “If you test positive but are asymptomatic, isolate for 10 days starting from the date of your COVID test.”

However, the duration of isolation can vary depending on the symptoms and severity of your case.

“Generally speaking, there is no need to retest after COVID infection,” Lipps says. “It is best to try to avoid close contact with others in the [same] home as much as possible, but particularly important to try to avoid close contact with those at high risk for severe complications from COVID such as the elderly or immunocompromised.”

During this period, it's important to get enough rest, eat well, and drink plenty of water. Taking over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen may also help reduce fever and relieve discomfort.

What This Means For You

If you are fully vaccinated and you were exposed to someone with suspected or known COVID-19 infection, you need to get tested within three to five days to determine whether you need to be isolated or not. You can find a testing site near you here.

When Can You Stop Isolating?

The length of time for a quarantine period isn’t the same for every person with a breakthrough case.

Asymptomatic Infection

If you tested positive but remained asymptomatic, you can stop isolating and taking extra precautions 10 days after your first positive COVID-19 test.

Mild-to-Moderate Symptomatic Infection

If you experience a mild-to-moderate COVID-19 infection, you can stop isolating if:

  • It’s been 10 days since symptoms first appeared
  • You had no fever in 24 hours without the use of medications
  • Previous symptoms of COVID-19 have improved

The loss of taste and smell can last for weeks or months, so you don’t have to keep isolating if that's your only remaining symptom.

Severe Symptomatic Infection

If you become severely ill with COVID-19—like requiring hospitalization or ventilation support—you might have to quarantine for up to 20 days after the onset of symptoms. Quarantine is contingent on whether your fever has resolved and other symptoms have improved.

Severely Immunocompromised Individuals

People who are moderately or severely immunocompromised due to certain medical conditions or treatments may need a longer quarantine period and additional testing because there are cases of viral shedding beyond 20 days.

It’s best to consult with an infectious disease expert for further advice on when to end your quarantine.

Does This Mean the Vaccines Aren't Effective?

The vaccines remain highly effective against COVID-19, but they cannot provide full protection against infection.

“While ‘breakthrough’ infections can occur and are frustrating, it's important to remember that it does not mean your vaccine did not work,” Lipps says. “The vaccine provides very robust protection against hospitalization and death due to COVID-19, so even if you develop a symptomatic infection, the vaccine may have prevented you from a much more serious case.”

Infections occur in only a small fraction of fully vaccinated individuals—even with the Delta variant—and they tend to be mild or asymptomatic, Oliveira says.

“Unfortunately, asymptomatic, or minimally symptomatic people, tend to be the ones who infect the greatest number of people because they often don't get tested and don't restrict their activities,” he adds. “It is important that vaccinated people wear a mask and get tested after exposure, even if asymptomatic, as this will reduce the risk of potentially spreading the virus to others.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Contract Tracing Plan.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ending Isolation and Precautions for People with COVID-19: Interim Guidance.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Treatments Your Healthcare Provider Might Recommend if You Are Sick.

By Carla Delgado
Carla M. Delgado is a health and culture writer based in the Philippines.