Headstrong

Do Face Masks Really Protect You From Getting Sick?

Experts explain if medical face masks work against illnesses like the Wuhan coronavirus.

Over the weekend, three new cases of the Wuhan coronavirus were confirmed in the United States: two in California and one in Arizona, bringing the national total to five. That number is expected to climb, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But we still don’t have a solid grasp on how easily the respiratory illness — which is also known as 2019-nCoV and was first identified in Wuhan, China — spreads. There’s enough evidence it’s transmissible between humans, but whether you’d have to come in close contact with an infected person’s coughs or sneezes or simply be in their presence or touch a contaminated surface to contract the virus is unclear.

Because the virus is still somewhat of a mystery, many people — especially those in China, where the outbreak is centered — have started wearing face masks to protect themselves from getting sick. (There’s allegedly already a face mask shortage in some cities in Asia, and many Amazon sellers have sold out.)

But even though people are rushing to get their hands on a medical face mask, experts are somewhat skeptical about how effective they are in protecting people against dangerous viruses and bacteria. Below is their take on whether or not you should wear a mask and how else you can protect yourself.

More people are wearing medical face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
More people are wearing medical face masks to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Face masks can help, to a degree.

There are a couple different ways viruses such as this one can go around. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they expel respiratory droplets into the air that carry the virus. They can also spread those droplets around if they touch their eyes and nose then touch another person or surface. If someone were to come into contact with these contagious droplets — either in the air or by touching a surface that contained the droplets — they, too, could get sick.

There is some evidence that, when used correctly, face masks can slow the spread of airborne viruses. For example, one study from 2008 found that those who used a mask were 80% less likely to get the flu. Another 2009 report found that, in tandem with frequent hand-washing, face masks lowered people’s risk of getting the flu by about 70%.

But the masks aren’t foolproof, and just because you’re wearing one does not mean you’re in the clear.

“Masks of any kind would be helpful because then they are covering up your nose and mouth so they aren’t going to touch those, but they still leave your eyes open so you can touch and transmit the virus that way,” Michael Ison, an infectious disease specialist with Northwestern Medicine, told HuffPost.

When we look back at the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that struck in 2003, researchers concluded that face masks played some role in slowing down the spread — especially in a hospital setting — but mostly because they prevented sick people from passing SARS around. In fact, most people in Asia wear the masks not to avoid getting sick themselves but to protect other people from harmful germs and viruses.

In 2012, when another deadly coronavirus — Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) — struck, health officials recommended wearing a face mask only if you were in the same room as a person with MERS. There just wasn’t enough evidence on if masks had any role in halting the spread of MERS.

The main takeaway here: Masks alone won’t eliminate your risk of contracting the coronavirus. But, they may help.

“It can reduce the risk of some transmissions, but doesn’t take the risk to zero,” Ison said.

There are different types of face masks.

There are two types of face masks that can help cut your odds of getting coronavirus: Surgical face masks and respirators, also known as N-95 masks.

The ones we’re seeing all over the news? Those are surgical face masks, and what doctors, dentists and nurses use while treating patients.

While they do protect people from splashes and sprays to a degree, they aren’t foolproof. They’re loose-fitting and relatively thin, so tinier droplets can still seep in through the parts of the mask.

“[Surgical] masks do provide a degree of protection against fluids, including spray from a cough or sneeze, and they provide some filtration of the air. However, since the masks do not provide a tight seal around the wearer’s nose and mouth, much of the air inhaled and exhaled is unfiltered,” said Richard Martinello, a Yale Medicine infectious disease specialist.

Then, there are respirators, commonly used by construction workers. They’re heavy-duty, and are form fitted to your face. According to the CDC, these masks filter out about 95% of airborne particles, including viruses and bacteria.

But, they aren’t so comfortable and many people report trouble breathing while wearing them, making them difficult to wear for hours on end. Respirators can get clogged and cause people’s breathing and heart rate to soar, so pregnant people or individuals with breathing problems should consult a doctor before using one.

Washing your hands is one of the most effective ways to prevent viruses.
Washing your hands is one of the most effective ways to prevent viruses.

That said, you probably don’t need to get a face mask.

Even though we can’t seem to avoid news about the coronavirus, you don’t need to panic and buy a mask, health experts say. The risk of an outbreak here in the United States is still low, and the masks won’t provide much benefit at this time. (For the record, the flu is still far more infectious and deadlier than this coronavirus.)

The CDC has stated there’s no real need for the public to wear face masks, just those traveling in and around China.

“We generally do not recommend the use of either masks or respirators for the general public. Of course, persons who desire to be extra cautious about their exposure to germs when in public may choose to wear a mask,” Martinello said.

How well the masks work largely depends on if you’re is wearing it correctly. Make sure the correct side is facing outward, keep the mask snug over your nose, secure the loops behind your ears, and close off the gaps around your jawline. Martinello said the biggest mistake people make is when the mask covers their mouth but not their nose.

There are other steps that are more effective than wearing a mask. For one, keep a distance from sick people, especially those coughing or sneezing. Also, not touching your face with your hands minimizes your exposure to harmful germs. Lastly, hand-washing is your best line of defense against any virus, so wash frequently and thoroughly.

“Making sure people wash their hands and get their flu shot probably is going to be better at keeping them healthy than putting a face mask on,” Ison said.