April 9th, 2020 by
The coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented and, understandably, very concerning for all of us. The best way to protect ourselves from infection is to stay home and practice social distancing wherever possible. However, one measure that many people are considering the benefits of is wearing a face mask. So, do face masks stop you catching the coronavirus? The answer to that has many variables. We take a look here at the possible protection that face masks offer.
Before we look at masks, it’s important to understand the virus and how it is transmitted. The main transmission route of coronavirus is through droplets. Droplets are discharged from the mouth or nose through coughs and sneezes or by infected people touching their mouths, noses and eyes and then passing the virus on via their hands. You can become infected if these droplets get into your mouth or eyes and this can happen if the virus gets onto your hands and then you touch your face, hence the importance of handwashing.
It depends on the type of mask
There is no clear cut answer on whether face masks can protect against COVID-19 as there are many different types of face mask available. News footage and social media have shown people wearing everything from medical grade face masks to DIY store dust masks to homemade masks made of underwear! Needless to say, the level of protection will vary greatly between these different types.
A properly fitted, filter respirator mask will offer the greatest protection. These are the types of masks that healthcare professionals wear. They fit very closely to the face and air is taken in through a filter. These masks are necessary for these cases because they face high viral loads caring for their patients.
Cloth masks are much less effective. They have space around the mask where air can flow around and small droplets may be able to penetrate through the material. If you touch the outside of the mask and have the virus on your hands, this can still transfer through the fabric. However, if the mask makes you more conscious of not touching your face then this can help reduce risk.
It depends on how you use them
The protection a face mask can offer also depends on correct usage. Remember that your breath will make any mask damp very quickly and once it is damp, the virus can pass through much more easily. Therefore, they need to be changed frequently.
This needs to be accompanied by a thorough hand washing regime. Hands should be washed before removing and disposing of the old mask, again before replacing with a new mask and then again afterwards.
Changing face masks regularly like this may actually result in touching your face even more than usual so if you don’t do it in conjunction with thorough hand washing, you could inadvertently be increasing your risk rather than reducing it.
Should you wear a face mask?
That’s entirely your choice, but there is little evidence that the types of mask that are readily available to the general public will offer much protection. However, as masks can stop you from spreading the virus to others by catching most of the respiratory droplets you breathe out, it’s still a good thing to wear them. One of the main reasons why COVID-19 is so serious is that many people don’t even realise they have it – the virus comes and goes from their bodies without affecting them at all. This means it’s possible to spread the virus even if you feel completely fine. Obviously, by its very nature, this is very difficult to track, and research shows that anywhere from 5 to 80% of people with the virus show no symptoms at all.
While government guidelines currently do not recommend wearing face masks, the science on the subject is still so unclear that many people choose to just to be safe. If it makes you feel more comfortable, there’s no reason you can’t wear a mask when out in public. What we do know is that, currently, the best protection from coronavirus we have is social distancing, so make sure you stay indoors unless absolutely necessary.
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