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How Can Wearing Face Masks Potentially Protect You from Coronavirus?

Face masks act as a physical barrier to protect the wearer from viral particles. Individuals have long used face masks for flu protection and to manage pollen allergies on a seasonal basis. With the aggressive spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, to countries and territories worldwide, the use of face masks is becoming more and more popular.

First, there was an increase in mask-wearing in Wuhan, China, where the outbreak initially started, and other Asian countries followed. Later on, wearing COVID masks was adopted as a key strategy by many countries in an effort to “flatten the curve” (reduce the number of cases being treated at any given time).

Now, the CDC recommends the use of face masks to anyone who is able to do so when they go out in public. This is intended to protect them and the people around them from spreading (or contracting) COVID-19.

Will COVID face masks help us battle COVID-19?

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To get an answer to whether face masks can work to stop the virus from spreading, we need to understand its mode of action and the way it spreads.

Once the coronavirus infects a person, it reproduces in the body and generates multiple virus particles inside the infected person. These particles become suspended in body fluids present in the lungs, nose, and mouth. When the infected person coughs or sneezes, it releases the virus in the air in the form of tiny droplets. Once these virus-containing droplets are inhaled by healthy individuals, those individuals become infected. The presence of certain face coverings or mask shields prevents people from inhaling the droplets. They act as a physical barrier between the face and the contaminated air, which contains those virus droplets.

When infected people wear a standard surgical mask, they can considerably reduce the number of virus particles escaping through their breath, as well as any coughs or sneezes. This makes the use of face masks an asset in crowded areas and public transport since people can spread the virus before they exhibit symptoms.

Didn’t they originally say face masks don’t do anything?

In the early days of the pandemic, governments did not favor the use of face masks by the public for multiple reasons, one of which was to conserve the masks for frontline healthcare workers and doctors. Only washing hands with alcohol-based sanitizer and maintaining a good social distance (six feet apart) was recommended at first.

But the aggressive spread of coronavirus in many states of the US led the CDC to issue a statement advising the public on wearing face masks, even of the cloth variety.

How does coronavirus spread?

  • The virus spreads most commonly through person-to-person contact within about six feet.
  • The respiratory droplets that an infected person showers in the air by talking, singing, coughing, and sneezing can also lead to spread between individuals.
  • COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms. It is one of the prime reasons for the swift spread of coronavirus as it has an incubation time of five to 14 days before it starts showing its symptoms. Therefore, asymptomatic (symptom-free), infected individuals can still spread the virus. That is why it is so important for everyone to wear coronavirus face masks, according to experts and the CDC.
  • Other modes of coronavirus transmission can be from touching surfaces, from humans to animals, and from animals to humans, but these are less common methods of transmission.

What kind of mask should I wear?

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There are different kinds of mask options available, from highly effective respirators like the N95 and looser-fitting surgical masks to simple cloth-based face coverings.

Pros and cons of N95 respirators

N95 respirator masks are believed to have high efficiency, as they can filter out 95 percent of airborne particles when worn correctly, though they are only rated for non-oily particles. It is able to block most of the respiratory viruses, including the influenza virus. According to a study done in China on healthcare workers, the workers who often wore N95 respirator masks experienced a lower rate of virus infection than their counterparts. Due to their high performance, wearing N95 respirator masks are deemed very important for frontline healthcare staff.

These N95 respirator face masks have been disinfected and reused in some cases, but still, the healthcare industry cannot afford a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline workers. It is not recommended for the general public to use these masks, so that medical workers (and in some cases, patients) can have the protection they need.

Another issue with wearing N95 respirator face masks for coronavirus is that in order to function effectively, these masks require perfect fitting, and proper training is required for that. The mask loses its function if not properly fitted. The presence of facial hair can also affect the performance of these COVID masks. The CDC has issued comprehensive guidelines on wearing N95 respirator face masks.

Pros and cons of looser-fitting surgical masks

Another type of mask commonly used in healthcare settings is surgical masks. These masks have 75 percent efficiency in filtering airborne particles. Moreover, in comparison to N95 respirator face masks, these masks are loosely fitted. These are far less effective than N95 face masks for coronavirus, but still work to keep the infection rates down.

CDC has recommended that the use of N95 respirator masks and surgical masks be reserved for healthcare workers, while it has advised the public to use cloth-based face coverings. Although the effectiveness of these cloth masks is not on the same level as surgical masks, including the N95, experts say that they are better than wearing nothing. They can still limit the release of viruses-containing droplets in the air. 

The CDC emphasizes that the public should avoid social gatherings and going to crowded spaces, and maintain six feet distances when in public to avoid catching or transmitting the infection. This will help masks of all varieties do their job more efficiently.

Cloth masks for coronavirus

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As mentioned earlier, people showing no symptoms can still spread viruses. In light of this, to flatten the curve, the CDC recommended the use of cloth coverings and face masks for coronavirus in public situations where it is difficult to maintain social distancing. These cloth-based COVID masks can be made at home at a low cost. Just remember to follow these guidelines: 

  • Cloth-based masks should fit against the face securely and remain in place without the need for adjusting during wear.
  • They should be made by using multiple layers of fabric.
  • They should also be able to be laundered without damage.
  • Individuals wearing a mask should be careful not to touch the face, especially the nose, eyes, and mouth, while removing the mask. The wearer should wash their hands immediately after removing the face mask.

Coronavirus face mask contraindications

There are some situations where a face mask is not recommended, even for protection against COVID-19:

  • A person who has breathing issues should balance their ability to breathe with the risk of going maskless.
  • Cloth face masks shouldn’t be placed on children under the age of two, as the risk of suffocation may be greater than the risk of infection.
  • Do not put a mask on an unconscious individual who is unable to remove the mask without assistance unless you are a medical professional.

Make and wear your own cloth face mask

There are several DIY tutorials available on the CDC website to make your own cloth face masks for coronavirus. If you are unable to purchase one at this time, consider making one of these from materials you have on hand.

Face masks act as protective barriers to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases. Due to the rapid spread of coronavirus, CDC has advised the public to wear cloth-based face masks in addition to following other precautionary measures. 

Once again, the CDC has emphasized that the use of high-performance face masks like N95 masks and surgical masks should be reserved only for frontline medical workers. As coronavirus mainly spreads by person-to-person contact, it is best to practice responsible social distancing in addition to wearing cloth-based coronavirus masks to protect yourself and others from this potentially lethal infection.

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