Masks. They’re just about all anyone can talk about, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the only guaranteed way to manage the virus at this point is not to contract it, it makes sense that protection from it is on the forefront of our minds.
There are many preventative measures involved in this; one of the most notable ones is to cover your face. In some places, face masks have been made mandatory while out in the community. However, there is a sense of confusion among wearers who wonder what the real reason to wear a mask is.
If you, too, are confused about this, it may help to know that you’re not the only one. People across the globe are questioning the validity of mask-wearing and the actual reason behind why we should be doing it. There is plenty of false news and unpredictable behaviors surrounding the novel coronavirus, which has only fed into these concerns.
In this article, we will discuss the real reason to wear a mask and, hopefully, clear up any related questions you have.
Two reasons to wear a mask
Masks can be worn for two primary reasons; they can protect the wearer from contracting the coronavirus, and can also help an infected person or a carrier from spreading it to others. One of these processes is much easier than the other; interestingly, it is more challenging to stop an uninfected community from catching the virus than it is to reduce viral transmission from an infected person to another. There are scientifically-backed facts that support this, which we’ll discuss later in this article.
Effectiveness of masks: two situations
According to the CDC, face masks can be useful if an entire community wears them continually. However, wearing them intermittently and with breaks in the middle is not nearly as effective.
In a study conducted to test the effectiveness of face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic, 19 randomized, controlled trials were conducted. The results showed that the virus can spread from one person to another and that those who wore face masks continuously were less likely to catch it. The study also revealed that patients wearing the mask were less likely to infect the healthcare workers tending to them.
We can rely upon the results of this study because it is the combined conclusion achieved after monitoring 19 trials. Furthermore, the validity of these trials is validated by the fact that they were conducted with random groups of patients, hence eliminating any controllable biases, and encouraging fair testing.
However, the type of mask worn did matter. The same study revealed that medical masks were not effective in terms of protecting the wearer from contracting the virus, and that cloth covering was even less useful. However, when the same face coverings were tested on patients already infected with the coronavirus, it was revealed that wearing any kind of sensible covering could prevent transmission from the patient to the environment, including other people surrounding them.
At this point, you’re probably thinking it doesn’t make sense that the same mask that is ineffective in blocking out the coronavirus, can reduce the chances of an infected person from infecting someone else.
The reason behind this is actually far more straightforward than you may think but requires some background understanding first.
Notes on facial coverings and viruses
Viruses are extremely tiny particles. They are too small to see under most magnifying devices, and require highly-specialized viewing tools, like the electron microscope, to be noticed.
Viruses are usually significantly smaller than most bacteria. Many are classified as sub-microscopic, which means that you can’t see them under a light microscope, and can range in size from five to 300 nanometers, with a few exceptions that may be larger or smaller.
The trouble with face masks is that, even at maximum efficiency, they cannot block out 100% of all viral particles. This is because viruses are simply far too small for a human-made barrier, like a cloth covering, to stop each and every particle. However, some devices can offer protection to a certain degree. As noted in the study above, respirators like the N95 were the most sensible option for healthy people who were trying to avoid catching the virus.
N95 respirators can shield you from particles that are larger than 0.3 microns. Microns, or micrometers, represent one-millionth of a meter. One nanometer is equal to 0.001 microns. This means that nanometers are a larger unit than microns. Viruses are measured in nanometers and are much larger than the 0.3-micron limit offered by the N95 respirator. Hence, these respirators are effective in stopping viruses.
However, it’s important to note that N-series respirators are not oil-proof; the coronavirus is an oil-based particle and can enter through N-series masks. P and R-series masks offer better protection against oil-based particles; they are the ideal alternative to N-series masks for protection against the coronavirus.
Devices with multiple layers also offered some protection against the virus. According to one study, a non-respirator face mask that had more layers was more likely to succeed in trapping infectious particles. Even though most face coverings are not efficient, more layers do result in better protection, but there is no real guarantee that the wearer will be wholly immune to the virus.
Cloth masks, on the other hand, have massive gaps between each fiber. In most cases, they cannot stop dust particles from passing through them, let alone prevent a sub-microscopic virus.
For this reason, cloth masks, including DIY face coverings like bandanas and t-shirt wraps, are less effective against the coronavirus. However, if you remember the first study cited in this article, these same cloth coverings were able to prevent the spread of disease from an infected person to a non-infected one, when worn correctly. The story behind face mask efficiency is just as odd as the very thing it was designed to protect us from – the unpredictable coronavirus.
Coughs and sneezes spread diseases
When someone is infected with the coronavirus, the disease takes over their body. The virus particles manifest themselves within the very fiber of one’s physical being.
The primary way for a virus-like coronavirus to escape the human body is the same way it got in – through the mouth or nose.
Lucky for us, when a person coughs or sneezes, they don’t expel just the virus; instead, a ton of other things come with it, like mucus, biological molecules, and various liquids. This means that when a person coughs or sneezes, they expel mainly droplets and mucus.
The virus is essentially trapped within a larger substance. Cough and sneeze droplets are large enough to be caught by cloth masks, surgical masks, and respirators. Most of these devices are unable to trap sub microscopic particles, but can effectively stop droplets that have the virus suspended within them.
This means that you don’t need a medical-grade mask to stop yourself from infecting other people.
How great is that? It looks like large healthcare bodies like the CDC really are worth listening to. Covering your face can stop you from spreading the disease to other people.
Every coin has two sides
Unfortunately, viruses can exist independently, too. Sometimes, they are present across plain surfaces that are devoid of mucous. There is no confirmation regarding how long this specific virus can live on inanimate surfaces, but some researchers suggest it may be as long as several days.
When a person touches these surfaces, the virus can stick to their skin. When we touch our faces, the viral particles enter our respiratory tract through the mouth and nose. They then reach our lungs, where they may cause an infection.
So, how does this tie in with face masks?
When a virus is picked up from a surface, it is nothing more than just a viral particle. No mucus layer or droplet is preventing it from passing through unrefined face coverings, like bandanas and cloth masks.
Mucus particles are large. They cannot pass through most cloth materials. Viruses that are not suspended in mucus droplets, however, can easily pass through most coverings because, without a large droplet surrounding them, they are just a few nanometers across in size.
This is why most masks cannot stop viruses from entering but can prevent them from escaping the mouth in the form of a droplet as long as the nose and mouth are covered. Hence the virus spreading is stopped.
The real reason to wear a mask
The real reason why healthcare bodies and governments around the world are insisting that people wear a face mask is to prevent infected people from spreading it to others. Regardless of what covering they choose, as long as the nose and mouth are covered, infected people are unlikely to transmit the virus to other people through a cough or sneeze.
Other preventative measures
Apart from wearing a mask, there are many other ways through which you can help control the spread of the coronavirus and reduce the cases of COVID-19. You can flatten the curve, firstly, by staying home. Separating yourself from the public by remaining at home as much as possible is an effective way to reduce the number of cases of coronavirus. Naturally, if you are far away from infected people, you are not likely to catch it.
If you happen to be infected, staying home is key as you are less likely to come into contact with other people. This method is known as self-isolation and is strongly advised to all those who feel that they might be infected but cannot get tested, for whatever reason.
If you fear you may be infected with the coronavirus, look out for the following symptoms:
- Dry cough
There are also other known symptoms, but these do not affect everyone. They include:
- Aches and pains
- Sore throat
- Inability to taste
- Loss of sense of smell
- A rash on the skin
- Discoloration of your fingers or toes
Watching out for these symptoms will help you stay aware, but remember that you may be contagious even before you start to show symptoms. Washing your hands with soap and water can break down the virus and destroy it before it reaches your nose or mouth (or before you spread it). If we take the correct preventative measures, including wearing a face mask for protection, we can successfully slow the spread of the virus to a safe point, until effective treatments or a vaccine are available to the public.