With the new coronavirus aka COVID-19 from China spreading across the globe, many people want to know how they can protect themselves from infection.
And one of the most debated topics right now is the use of face masks.
Does wearing one protects you from coronavirus?

Meanwhile, the CDC recommends:

  1. Wash your hands (20 sec) thoroughly regularly throughout the day, especially after using a bathroom, and before eating.
  2. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  3. Avoid contact with people who are sick and COVID-19 positive.
  4. Disinfecting commonly used surfaces

This advice will help protect you from a whole host of infections, including COVID-19.
But the CDC does not recommend the routine use of surgical masks to protect against coronavirus infection.
And some experts say that Masks and gloves do a better job of spreading bugs than stopping them.

Meanwhile, the COVID-19 is airborne fears are leading to mask shortages around the world:

The World Health Organization just warned of a global “chronic shortage” of personal protective equipment that could shield individuals from coronavirus.
Personal protective equipment does not mean specifically surgical masks. It includes surgical masks, N95 respirator masks, gloves, goggles, and gowns.

Masks are now hard to come by in the United States, as well.

The National Community Pharmacists Association on Thursday released results of a national survey that said 96% of local pharmacies are experiencing a shortage of surgical masks, and nearly 40% are don’t have enough N95 respirators.

The websites of CVS and Walmart, show few to no surgical masks and N95 respirator masks.

But what is the role of these masks, and do we really need them?

Face masks can play a role in preventing the infection, but that role is limited in real-world situations. There is some evidence that wearing a face mask can protect you from transmitting the virus from your hands to your mouth, probably because you are paying more attention to NOT touching your face when you’re wearing it. You also have some protection from “splash” droplets if an infected person sneezes or coughs around you. And also as the COVID-19 is airborne and can stay live in the air for 3 hours, for this reason, it’s important to wear a mask to stay safe.

But there are several reasons why face masks are not ideal. For one, it’s really hard to find one that fits perfectly around your nose and mouth or to keep it on for a long period of time. The minute you scratch your nose or touch your mouth behind the mask, you’ve lost the protection that the mask is expected to give you.

In hospitals, there are very specific guidelines about when to use masks and what kind of protection to wear depending on the type of infection a patient has or is suspected of having.

For example, when a patient is said to require droplet precautions, that means health care workers need to use a rectangular surgical face mask. These surgical face masks are intended to prevent infections that spread by large droplets when someone coughs, sneezes, or talks. This includes infections like influenza, whooping cough, and meningococcal meningitis.

Then there are airborne precautions. Some lung or throat infections spread when small viral or bacterial particles stay suspended in the air and can be inhaled by other people. The coronavirus is believed to fall into this category. This category also includes SARS, measles, chickenpox, and tuberculosis. In these cases, all people coming into close contact with the patient should wear an N95 respirator mask. These masks have a special air filter designed to protect from tiny airborne particles. Unlike a surgical mask, they fit a person’s face and are usually rounded in shape. In theory, all the air a person inhales is filtered through tiny pores in the mask.

And because the novel coronavirus is thought to spread through contact, droplet, and airborne, the most appropriate mask to prevent inhalation would be an N95 mask.

People who actually have the coronavirus infection, or are at high risk for being exposed should wear a surgical face mask.

And anyone caring for someone infected in a hospital should wear an N95. mask as part of airborne precautions.

Dr. Mike Hansen, MD
Internal Medicine | Pulmonary Disease | Critical Care Medicine

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