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

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This story has been updated.

As public health officials continue to monitor the spread of the new coronavirus, Americans have been faced with some fundamental changes to their daily life. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is now advising people to use a cloth face covering whenever social distancing isn't possible. Health care workers and others who are at higher risk of contracting the illness should opt for N95 masks or surgical masks.

All afford different levels 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. Here are the pros and cons of each.

Thin surgical masks don't offer much in the way of protection for the wearer, because they're meant to keep the wearer from spreading pathogens to others through exhaled droplets. Originally, they were designed to prevent health care professionals from spreading germs to patients during surgical procedures. The masks are 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 and exit through the sides.

Is it better than nothing? Yes. But you wear it to protect others, not yourself.

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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.

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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.

Because these types of medical-grade masks are in short supply, health experts suggest a cloth face covering be substituted for most people. The main objective of these masks is not necessarily to protect the wearer from being infected. Instead, the covering can reduce the chances for an infected person to spread the virus by limiting respiratory droplets distributed in the air. Even people who do not feel ill should wear the masks, because it's possible to be asymptomatic and still be able to spread the virus.

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The CDC recommends cloth masks for those 2 years of age and over. If you have respiratory issues that make breathing difficult, you should consult with a physician before donning any kind of mask.

You should also be mindful of the proper way to place or remove any kind of mask. Be sure to wash your hands before touching the mask, then secure it around your ears and under your chin. Avoid touching your face or the mask while out in public. When you return home, wash your hands again before taking it off by using the ties or strings. Launder cloth masks before wearing them again.

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]