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Can Wearing A Mask Protect You From Coronavirus?

photo of surgical mask
Neha Pathak, MD - Blogs
By Neha Pathak, MDBoard-certified internistJanuary 27, 2020

With mounting concern about the new coronavirus (2019-nCoV) from China, many people are trying to figure out the best ways to protect themselves and their loved ones from infection. Two big questions many people have are: Will wearing a face mask keep us safe? And if so, what kind?

The most important thing to understand is that researchers are still trying to work out the ways that this new coronavirus is transmitted. In the meantime, the best advice based on CDC recommendations is to:

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly regularly throughout the day
  2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  3. Avoid contact with people who are sick.

This advice will help protect you from a whole host of infections, including 2019-CoV.

Face masks can play a role in preventing the infection, but that role is limited in real world situations.  There is some evidence that wearing a face mask can protect you from transmitting the virus from your hands to your mouth, probably because you are paying more attention to NOT touching your face when you’re wearing it. You also have some protection from “splash” droplets if an infected person sneezes or coughs around you.

The biggest concern that doctors have around recommending masks is the false sense of security that might come along with wearing one. There are a lot of reasons why face masks are not ideal. For example, it’s really hard to find one that fits perfectly around your nose and mouth or to keep it on for a long period of time. The minute you scratch your nose or touch your mouth behind the mask, you’ve lost the protection that the mask is supposed to offer.

In medical settings, there are very specific guidelines about when to use masks and what kind of protection to wear depending on the type of infection patients have.

Droplet precautions: Use a rectangular surgical face mask for an infection that spreads by large droplets when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks. Infections like flu, whooping cough, and certain types of bacterial meningitis fall into this category. Both the person who is infected and the people caring for  them should wear a face mask. It is really important that caregivers dispose of the mask after every interaction and use a new one any time they are in close confines with an infected person.

Airborne precautions: Some lung or throat infections  spread when small viral or bacterial particles stay suspended in the air and are breathed in by others. 2019-CoV, measles, SARS, chickenpox and tuberculosis are a part of this category. In these cases, the infected person should wear a face mask. And all people coming into close contact should wear an N95 respirator,  masks with a special air filter designed to protect from tiny airborne particles. These masks fit to a person’s face and are usually rounded in shape.

While researchers continue to learn more about how this new coronavirus spreads, the recommendations around masks focus on people who have the infection or are highly likely to be exposed. People who have the infection or are at high risk for being exposed should wear a surgical face mask. Anyone caring for someone infected in a medical setting should wear a respirator mask as part of airborne precautions.

For the rest of us, the best protection -- hand washing, avoiding sick people, and not touching our face with unwashed hands -- also helps prevent colds and the flu. If you choose to wear a surgical mask, make sure you have the best fit possible around your mouth and nose. Properly dispose of the mask and put on a new one anytime someone coughing or sneezing around you contaminates it. It is also incredibly important to share your travel history with your doctors and reach out for early medical help if you have a fever, cough, trouble breathing.

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About the Author
Neha Pathak, MD

Neha Pathak, MD, is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and part of WebMD's team of medical editors responsible for ensuring the accuracy of health information on the site. Before joining WebMD, Pathak worked as a primary care physician at the Department of Veterans Affairs and was an assistant professor of medicine at Emory University in Atlanta.

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