Can Wearing a Face Mask Really Protect You From Coronavirus? Doctors Explain
Naturally, people are growing concerned about their risk of infection. And because we are also in the midst of flu season, one hot item is starting to show up in photos (and selling out in drugstores): face masks.
Shortly after the initial outbreak in January, images out of China, where the novel coronavirus originated, showed many people wearing face masks. Now, people all over the world are wearing them, especially in crowded spaces, like planes and trains. But are they really effective in preventing illness? Here, infectious disease doctors break down what you should know before you consider buying one yourself.
Can wearing a face mask reduce your risk of coronavirus?
The answer is trickier than you’d think. “Face masks can help protect against many respiratory infections that are spread through the droplet route, and that includes coronavirus and the flu,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
These illnesses can spread from an infected person to others through the air by coughing and sneezing or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes prior to hand washing. “If you wear a face mask, you can prevent those droplets from hitting your face or mouth before they drop to the ground,” Dr. Adalja says.
One major caveat: Doctors are usually trained to use these masks properly, and the general public isn’t, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. And when they’re not used correctly—say, they’re not properly placed on the face—they will not protect you from getting sick. (“Achieving an adequate seal to the face is essential,” the CDC says.)
Wearing a face mask can also be uncomfortable and “exhausting” to use over time, he says, adding that “they’re not designed to be worn eight hours a day.” Plus, if a mask does not fit your face properly, you may end up touching your face more than if you were not wearing one at all.
Does the type of face mask make a difference?
The CDC doesn’t currently recommend that the general public wear face masks to prevent viral infections. However, the organization says that people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 (or are being evaluated for infection) should wear a mask when they’re in the same room as other people.
“If you cannot wear a face mask, the people who live with you should wear one while they are in the same room with you,” the CDC says. Dr. Schaffner says an N95 respirator, which is “much thicker” than a surgical mask, tends to be the most effective in this case. While N99 masks filter out more more particles, they can be very difficult to breathe in—neither should be used for extended periods of time.
Painter’s masks are “worthless when it comes to respiratory protection,” he says. Surgical masks, which many people end up buying in stores, are designed to keep what’s in a surgeon’s mouth and nose from getting into a surgical field, he points out. “They’re really quite effective at doing that, but they’re not air tight around the edges,” Dr. Schaffner says. When you breathe through and around them, it doesn’t provide optimal respiratory protection.”
While the average person does not need to run out and buy a mask right now, they continue to sell out. Experts urge the public to remember that mask shortages can put the people who need them the most—like healthcare workers—at risk, per a recent Tweet from the U.S. Surgeon General.