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Can face masks protect against coronavirus?

Can face masks protect against coronavirus?

Can face masks protect against coronavirus?

As the number of people infected by the Wuhan coronavirus disease reaches over 40,000, many people are reaching for face masks to protect against the spread of disease.

But does wearing a face mask really protect you from catching the virus? Experts say it depends on the type of masks.

“A surgical mask might provide some protection, but it’s going to be very modest,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn, told MedicineNet.


Surgical masks vs N95 respirator

In their guidelines, The Centre for Disease Control points out the key differences between surgical masks and N95 respirators. Common surgical masks, like those found at pharmacies, are intended to protect the wearer against large droplets or splashes of bodily and infected fluids from others.

“They’re not designed to keep out viral particles,” said Schaffer. “Could they be of some use? Yes, but the effect is likely to be modest.”

The sturdier N95 respirators are designed to fit around the face much more tightly compared to surgical masks. They are designed to filter out 95% of airborne particles, including large and small particles. While more effective, Schaffer does not recommend N95 respirators for public use.

This is partly because these masks can be restricting to wear for long periods of time. “It turns out that the work of breathing, since you’re going through a very thick material, is harder. You have to work to breathe in and out. It’s a bit claustrophobic,” said Schaffer.

Dr Peter Rabinowitz, a director of the MetaCenter for Pandemic Disease Preparedness and Global Health Security at the University of Washington, agrees, adding that “they tend to slip and change position. It’s easy for air leaks to develop, even if they’re fitted correctly.”


Advice from the World Health Organisation

Currently, the World Health Organisation advises the public to:

  • Wash hands frequently – see our guide to healthy hand washing
  • Practice respiratory hygiene, such as covering your mouth with nose and flexed elbow or tissue when coughing and sneezing
  • Maintain 1-metre distance between yourself and other people
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth

To find out more, visit The World Health Organisation website. 

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