Does Wearing a Mask Really Protect You From Coronavirus?

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It's no secret that coronavirus is the story of the month. Not only are grocery stores emptied out from shoppers stocking up for a lockdown, but staples like hand sanitizer are next-to-impossible to find, too.

And if you live in a populated area, you've probably also seen people walking around with masks. In fact, masks are so common that, like groceries, they're hard to get ahold of — the state of Colorado is sold out of them right now, according to Colorado Public Radio.

But how much do masks really stop the spread of coronavirus, and do you really need to wear one? Read on to find out.

First, Let's Talk Face Masks in General

Sure, you've seen your dentist and maybe your doctor wear a face mask from time to time. But we're guessing you haven't thought of them beyond that (because you have barely any reason to!).

Face masks work by providing a barrier between the entrance to respiratory tract — your nose and mouth — and the rest of the world.

Should You Wear a Mask for Coronavirus?

Coronavirus is a respiratory infection, and it can also be transmitted by air. That means that if someone infected with the virus coughs or sneezes, they can release viral particles into the air. As the CDC explains, those particles can enter your body through your mouth or nose, and potentially find their way into your lungs.

So, wearing a face mask makes perfect sense, right? In theory, yes. “It seems kind of intuitively obvious that if you put something—whether it’s a scarf or a mask—in front of your nose and mouth, that will filter out some of these viruses that are floating around out there,” said Vanderbilt medical professor Dr. William Schaffner, in an interview with Time.

In practice, though, face masks do very little to protect you from airborne illnesses. That's especially true of disposable masks — the type you're most likely to see people wearing — because they don't effectively block out smaller particles like viruses. “The CDC would have recommended it years ago [if it worked],” Schaffner told Time.

What's more, wearing a mask you don't need could actually put others at risk. With face masks selling out across the country, people who genuinely benefit from wearing masks can't always access them — which means everyone's at higher risk.

So Who Actually Needs a Mask?

If you're healthy and you haven't been exposed to coronavirus, you don't need to wear a mask, according to the CDC.

Only wear a mask under certain conditions, the CDC advises. It's worth wearing a mask if you're close to someone potentially infected with 2019-nCoV — say, a family member. And you should consider wearing a mask if you're at risk of a coronavirus infection and you're coughing or sneezing.

In general, you're better off protecting yourself by keeping your hands clean rather than wearing a mask. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, reach for hand santizer throughout the day, and avoid touching your face.

And, of course, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Coronavirus aside, everyone around you will appreciate it!

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About the Author

Sylvie Tremblay holds a Master of Science in molecular and cellular biology and has years of experience as a cancer researcher and neuroscientist. Before launching her writing business, she worked as a TA and tutored students in biology, chemistry, math and physics.