Does Wearing a Face Mask Really Help Protect Against Coronavirus and Other Illnesses?

Popartinc/iStock via Getty Images
Popartinc/iStock via Getty Images

As public health officials continue to monitor the spread of the new coronavirus, which originated in China and has moved to other countries, concerned citizens have attempted to ward off the virus by donning face masks. Sometimes they’re surgical coverings; others resemble the kind used in construction. But are they really offering any measure of protection?

William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, told Live Science that some masks can offer the wearer an effective barrier against viral particles and other airborne pathogens—but not all masks are equal, and those that do a sound job are not terribly comfortable.

Thin surgical masks don't offer much in the way of protection. These masks are made for health care professionals and are intended to keep the wearer from spreading pathogens during surgical procedures. (Some people also wear them if they’re sick and want to go out in public while minimizing the chances of infecting others.) But they’re not designed to filter small airborne particles. And because they fit only loosely around the nose and mouth, it’s possible for contaminants to enter through the sides.

Is it better than nothing? Perhaps. But only by a small margin.

A woman wearing a surgical mask is pictured
Martin Barraud/iStock via Getty Images

For a more effective barrier, N95 respirators or better are recommended. These masks are more substantial and can effectively filter viral particles. The “N95” refers to the fact that these types of masks have been proven to block at least 95 percent of particles as small as 0.3 microns in size.

N95 respirators are pictured
Daria Ni/iStock via Getty Images

But what makes them effective is what also makes them unpleasant to wear. Because you’re breathing through thick material, it can become difficult to tolerate for extended periods, especially if you have a health condition that already makes breathing a challenge. And if the mask isn’t properly fitted to create a seal around the face, you might still be exposed to pathogens. This is particularly true of people with beards, since facial hair interferes with the mask’s ability to create a secure fit.

As the new coronavirus does not currently have a sizable presence in the United States, it’s probably not worthwhile to bother with a mask, though some people with certain health conditions may be advised by their health care providers to wear one in specific circumstances.

Whether it’s the coronavirus, the flu, or any other kind of infectious germ, the best defense is to wash your hands, avoid touching your face, and avoid contact with people who are ill if possible.

[h/t Live Science]

China's Coronavirus App Is Alerting Citizens When They're in Danger of Being Infected

Coronavirus fears have spread throughout China and beyond.
Coronavirus fears have spread throughout China and beyond.
Kevin Frayer, Getty Images

Questions continue to linger around the new coronavirus, currently plaguing parts of China and other countries. In an effort to combat the spread of the virus, the Chinese government recently introduced a smartphone app that claims to alert users when someone suspected of having the virus has been nearby.

According to the BBC, the app, dubbed the “close contact detector," works by having phone users register their name and government ID number. Once they activate the service, they’ll be notified if they’ve been in a place where someone diagnosed with coronavirus has been. Patient A, for example, might have reported being on a train, in a classroom, or in an office space that the app user also occupied. The user would get an alert along with a notice to stay home in the event they might have contracted the virus.

Whether a user has been in close contact is determined by their physical proximity to someone suspected of having the virus. Airplane passengers in the three rows surrounding someone suspected of being infected would be considered in close contact. Other passengers may not be considered close.

The scope of the app appears to be limited to information provided by transit authorities and other institutions and does not appear to be an all-inclusive method of determining exposure.

The app is state-sponsored and was developed by the General Office of the State Council, the National Health Commission, and the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation. While critics have said the app presents an invasion of privacy and a way for government to track any user's movements, others have argued that the risk to public health warrants it.

"In this case the public good and the public health has to outweigh the privacy concerns, otherwise we have no shot of doing anything about this," Dr. Irwin Redlener, the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, told ABC News.

[h/t BBC]

‘Do Not Smoke While Baby Is in the Room’ and Other Hospital Rules New Moms Had to Follow—In 1968

A happy couple leaves the hospital with their newborn baby in the 1960s.
A happy couple leaves the hospital with their newborn baby in the 1960s.
H. Armstrong Roberts/iStock via Getty Images

In 1968, not only was it acceptable for a new mother to smoke within mere hours of giving birth, but she could even light a cigarette from the comfort of her hospital bed—as long as her newborn baby wasn’t in the room.

Last year, Micala Henson took to Facebook to share an image of the instructions her grandmother had received from the hospital upon giving birth to Henson’s mother in October 1968. The post went viral, and people have continued to comment on the painfully obsolete and medically questionable guidelines well into 2020.

While “Do not smoke while baby is in the room” stands out as perhaps the worst health advice on the list, other rules reveal how much our culture has changed in the last 50 years. Fathers, for example, were strictly prohibited from sitting in the room when their wives were nursing, and visitors could only see babies “on display” at the nursery window during specific (and very restrictive) time slots.

hospital instructions for new mothers in 1968
The 'new mother' hospital rules that Micala Henson's grandmother received in 1968.
Micala Henson

The nursing schedule itself was exceptionally strict, too. Nurses would bring the baby to its mother four times a day, and the mother could only nurse for a certain number of minutes at a time—five during the first 24 hours, then seven during the second and third days, and finally 10 to 15 minutes for the fourth and fifth days.

“If baby nurses longer,” the instructions state, “It may cause the nipple to become sore.” These days, experts say infants are allowed to feed eight to 12 times a day, or whenever they’re hungry.

There’s also a brief, baffling list of foods nursing mothers should avoid, including chocolate candy, raw apples, cabbage, nuts, strawberries, cherries, onions, and something called “green cocoanut cake.” We can only guess what hospital staff meant by that last item, but some Easter cakes do feature green coconut shavings that look like grass. Today, the CDC recommends that new moms eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, but avoid seafood (due to the risks of mercury poisoning) and caffeine.

As long as new mothers are eating a variety of healthy foods, they’re probably entitled to a piece of coconut cake or two.

[h/t Bored Panda]

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