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Which Face Masks Prevent Against Coronavirus?

If you’re looking to buy a face mask right now, chances are you’ll have a hard time finding one. In light of the global outbreak of a new coronavirus called COVID-19, people are buying face masks at an unprecedented rate. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend healthy people wear face masks to prevent a shortage of their availability to health care workers, if you live with a chronic illness, it may be a different story.

What Is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is a new type of coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China. The primary symptoms are fever, cough and shortness of breath, which can appear anywhere from two days to two weeks after you’re exposed to COVID-19. It’s similar in many ways to the flu but since it’s a new illness in humans, there’s still a lot of information experts are working to learn.

Right now, the people most at risk of getting COVID-19 are those who have come into contact with someone who is already sick or who recently traveled to an area with a COVID-19 outbreak. It spreads when people come into contact with a contaminated surface or inhaling respiratory droplets from someone who is sick in close contact. As far as we know, it is not an airborne illness.

Who Should Wear a Face Mask?

In the context of COVID-19, the CDC and medical experts don’t recommend face masks for people who are healthy or are not in close contact with others who are sick. Coronavirus isn’t spread through the air but in respiratory droplets that land on surfaces or when someone in very close proximity to you sneezes. Wearing a face mask can also prevent you from spreading an illness if you’re already sick.

Recently, the CDC and other health officials like the surgeon general urged the healthy public to stop buying surgical face masks. Experts have explained that for healthy people who don’t live in an area facing a COVID-19 outbreak, the masks may reduce anxiety but they don’t prevent the spread of illness in most people.

“We have a huge epidemic of coronavirus anxiety in the U.S. and this purchasing and use of masks is a symptom of that,” William Schaffner, M.D.,  professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Today. “This is the desire of individuals to have some control.”

While this may feel invalidating, experts are adamant because we’re facing a face mask shortage and surgical face masks are crucial to protect health care workers. Health care professionals have a 15% risk of getting seriously sick while working with patients, much higher than the general public. Face masks help reduce their risk and ensure we have medical staff to treat patients.

“The CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from any respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19,” wrote Svetlana Blitshteyn, M.D., for The Mighty, adding:

You should only wear a mask if a health care professional recommends it. A face mask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms. This is to protect others from the risk of getting infected. The use of face masks also is crucial for health workers and other people who are taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings (at home or in a health care facility).

What People With Chronic Illness Should Know

Dr. Blitshteyn said we don’t know much yet about how COVID-19 impacts people with chronic illness. Vice recently reported that those with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory illness and cancer have a higher risk of serious consequences from the virus. If you live with a chronic illness, however, the reasons you may wear a face mask can extend beyond coronavirus.

Depending on your condition, a face mask can help keep out dust and allergens, reduce your risk of getting a cold or the flu if you’re immunocompromised, or reduce the inhalation of irritant chemicals or pollution. Caregivers may also opt to wear masks more often to reduce the risk of passing on an illness to a loved one with a compromised immune system.

What Type of Mask Helps Prevent Illness?

If you do want to use a face mask, there are several main types, including surgical masks, respirators, and dust and paint masks. COVID-19 is not an airborne virus, so if you need a face mask, the CDC suggests surgical masks and respirators. Masks made out of paper, cloth or fabric, gauze, cotton or plastic are not effective. Japanese-style Pitta masks, which have an outer layer that absorbs moisture, are also not recommended to prevent the spread of a virus like COVID-19.

No matter what type of mask you buy, also make sure it’s certified, classified or regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), American Society of Testing Materials (ASTM), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) or International Organization for Standardization (ISO) to ensure quality and effectiveness. It’s also important to use the mask properly, or you can actually increase your risk of infection.

1. Surgical Masks

Blue surgical mask laying flat on a white surface

Surgical masks serve as a barrier to prevent the release of bacteria in liquid droplets from your nose and mouth to prevent the spread of illness. They can also and prevent droplets from entering your nose and mouth. Typically designed with several layers of specially designed materials (not paper or cloth), surgical masks can also prevent you from touching your face. Surgical masks do not typically filter out airborne particles.

Surgical-style masks can come in a variety of styles, from disposable masks like you would find at the hospital to masks with a decorative outer layer that can be washed and reused. When you’re looking at surgical masks, beware of counterfeits or false claims of effectiveness. Surgical masks should be rated by ASTM International or a similar regulatory body. The gold standard for surgical masks is an ASTM-F2100 rating.

Some surgical masks may include an activated carbon or antimicrobial layer or filter in the design. Some research suggests masks with an activated carbon layer were more effective at filtering out a powerful anti-cancer drug and exhaust, for example. Other masks, like the FDA-approved antiviral BioMask include special materials to further control infection risk. Even with these special layers, make sure the mask has been approved by a reputable regulatory agency.

2. N95 Respirator

Collection of three respirators, including a white one with an exhaust valve, a white respirator and a medical green respirator

A respirator fits over your nose and mouth to block harmful particulates (airborne or otherwise) from entering your body. The most common type is the N95 respirator, which is rated to filter out at least 95% of airborne particles, though it is not oil-resistant. Other types of particulate respirators are rated to filter out up to 99% of particulates (N99).

“As a registered nurse, [an N95 respirator is] what I used to care for patients with tuberculosis, meningitis, measles, mumps, etc.,” Mighty community member Colleen Sullivan shared. “Just make sure the fit is very tight.”

To be effective, a respirator must be sized to fit tightly against your face and create a seal. They are also known for being hot and uncomfortable to wear. The experience has been described as breathing through a blanket, and may not be an option for those who have difficulty breathing. Some respirators come with an exhaust valve to increase their comfort. The CDC provides a list of NIOSH-approved N95 respirators on its website.

3. Dust Mask

White dust mask on black background

A dust mask is a covering for your mouth and nose designed to protect against environmental dust, debris and irritants when working around drywall, brick, wood or household chores like sweeping, dusting or working in the garden. Dust masks will not protect you against toxic chemicals, paint or mists and they don’t prevent the spread of illness. They’re best for working around the house if you’re sensitive to common dust or allergens.

4. Paint Mask

Black and white can of spray paint with a white paint mask propped up against it

Paint masks, similar to dust masks, fit around your mouth and nose and are designed to filter out harmful or irritating chemicals from paint, pesticides or other solvents. Paint masks are available as a pad-like material or a respirator-style mask. Paint masks also are not designed to prevent the spread of illnesses.

How to Wear a Face Mask Correctly

It’s critical to wear, remove and dispose of masks correctly. Experts warn that improperly worn masks can increase your risk of illness because you’re touching the mask or your face more often than normal. In addition, a respirator that doesn’t fit correctly can trap harmful particles inside the mask around your nose and mouth. Research suggests surgical face masks and N95 respirators are equally effective for preventing the spread of illness when worn correctly.

To properly wear a surgical mask, with freshly washed hands, place the nose splint over the bridge of your nose, and shape it snug around your nose. Make sure the mask covers your nose and mouth completely and is pulled down around your chin. Do not touch the outside of the mask and don’t take the same mask on and off. When you remove the mask, do so by the elastic loops around your ears and discard the mask in a closed bin. Thoroughly wash your hands after disposal.

If you’re using an N95 respirator, make sure you purchase a mask that fits your face for a firm seal. After washing your hands, fit the respirator over your nose, mouth and chin, then pull the elastic straps into place to secure the mask on your face. Form the nose piece firmly around the bridge of your nose, and then test for air leakage by breathing out into the mask. Respirators should be removed by touching only the elastics and placed into a closed bin. Wash your hands after removing and disposing of the mask.

Don’t wear any mask too long because infectious particles gather on the outside of the mask. Even if your mask is not disposable and designed for longer use, you should not wear the same mask for longer than a day. If you accidentally touch the outside of the mask while wearing it, wash your hands right away. And keep in mind, wearing a face mask is most effective when combined with proper hand-washing techniques.

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Header image via Macau Photo Agency/Unsplash