As the number of novel coronavirus (a.k.a. 2019-nCoV) cases continue to climb, people are growing concerned about their risk of infection. And because of this, one hot item is starting to show up in photos: face masks.
Images out of China, where the Wuhan coronavirus originated, show many people on the streets wearing face masks. But are they really effective during an outbreak? 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 and the flu?
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—people will often put their hands underneath the mask, for example—they will not protect you from getting sick.
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.”
They might have one perk, though: Wearing a mask could help prevent you from touching your mouth and nose with your hands directly.
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 confirmed to have a 2019-nCoV infection (or are being evaluated for one) 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 respiratory, which is “much thicker” than a surgical mask, tends to be the most effective in this case. While N99 masks filter out 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 airtight around the edges,” Dr. Schaffner says. When you breathe through and around them, it doesn’t provide optimal respiratory protection.”
So what’s the best way to protect yourself?
To minimize your exposure to a respiratory illness, take the proper precautions:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you are in a pinch.
- Do not touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- The CDC recommends avoiding all nonessential travel to Wuhan, China.
To avoid spreading a respiratory illness, be sure to do the following:
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.