People nationwide have been donning paper surgical masks and N-95 respirator masks to prevent the coronavirus. Learn more about whether you should be wearing them in public.

By Nicole Harris
Updated April 11, 2020
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Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Parents.com's COVID-19 Guide for up-to-date information on statistics, disease spread, and travel advisories.

As the novel coronavirus (and the disease it causes, COVID-19) spreads across America, you’ve probably noticed people wearing masks. The CDC now recommends the use of cloth face masks in public settings where social distancing might be difficult, like at grocery stores or pharmacies. But at this time, N-95 masks are not recommended for widespread use because there is a shortage for health care workers who need them most, says Aimee Ferraro, Ph.D., senior core faculty member for Walden University’s Master of Public Health program.

So who should be wearing a mask, and how do you put one on properly? We spoke with experts to learn more about the current recommended guidelines.

How Do Masks Prevent COVID-19?

The coronavirus partly spreads through droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets may travel up to six feet, and they can cause infection after landing in someone’s eyes, nose, or ears. COVID-19 may also spread through “airborne particles” that stick around after a cough or sneeze, though this theory needs more research. 

Two types of face masks—paper or cloth masks and N-95 respirator masks—can help prevent COVID-19 transmission. Here’s how they compare: 

Cloth or Paper Masks: Most people you see at the grocery store are wearing cloth masks or paper surgical masks. These barriers can block respiratory droplets, but they do not protect against airborne particles, says Dr. Ferraro. In other words, a sick person can wear a paper/cloth mask to prevent spreading their infected droplets through coughing and sneezing. But a healthy person won’t necessarily be protected because air particles might be small enough to pass around the mask, says Sarah Fankhauser, Ph.D., assistant professor of biology and infectious disease expert at Oxford College of Emory University. 

N95 Masks: “N-95 face masks are the most effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 because they block respiratory droplets that carry coronavirus, as well as 95 percent of airborne particles that might spread the illness,” says Dr. Ferraro. The tighter fit prevents large and small airborne particles from slipping around the edges. Most health care providers rely on N-95 masks when dealing with infectious diseases, such as the coronavirus.

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Should I Wear a Face Mask?

The CDC says that the general public should wear masks in public, especially in areas where it's difficult to practice social distancing. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) stresses that this guidances applies to anyone over age 2. Younger babies risk suffocation when wearing masks, since they can't let you know if they're struggling to breathe.

The CDC urges the public to don fabric masks instead of N-95 respirator masks. One major reason for this suggestion: There’s a shortage of them in hospitals and medical centers. “These masks should absolutely be reserved for health care workers who are putting their lives on the line,” says Dr. Fankhauser.

Masks are especially important for three groups: people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases, caregivers, and high-risk individuals. 

People with Confirmed/Suspected Cases: “If you are sick (coughing or sneezing), you should wear a face mask when you’re around other people. For example, you should wear it when you are sharing a room, in a vehicle, visiting the doctor, or going to the grocery store,” says Dr. Ferraro. The masks can stop infected droplets from spreading across the room when you cough, sneeze, speak, or exhale. 

Caregivers: If you’re a caregiver coming within six feet of an infected person, you should wear a mask to protect yourself from droplets, says Gwen Nichols, M.D., chief medical officer of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

High-risk individuals: The coronavirus may strike anyone, but it tends to hit older adults and those with compromised immune systems particularly hard. “Anyone who may be in a high-risk category should wear a mask, especially those who are over 65 and have co-morbidities, such as hypertension, diabetes, or history of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or immune issues,” explains Michael Hall, M.D., a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) vaccine provider who worked through the 2009 flu pandemic, providing H1N1 vaccines to his Miami patients.

Remember, “the mask isn’t to protect you from getting the illness, like it is for a health care worker,” says Dr. Nichols. “They prevent people with the disease (even asymptomatic carriers) from infecting other people.”

How Do I Properly Use a Mask?

Wearing face masks improperly may actually increase your risk of the coronavirus, according to U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. That’s because infected particles could seep through the edges if you adjust the mask or take it off improperly. If you would benefit from wearing a face mask, here are the proper ways to use one:

1. Choose a paper or cloth mask. “Currently the N-95 mask is in short supply, as it acts to prevent inhalation and exhalation of virus on particles of dust. A  simple surgical mask or cloth mask is fine for most,” says Dr. Hall. Only use a N-95 respirator mask if advised by your health care provider.  

2. Wash your hands. According to Dr. Ferraro, you should wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. You can also use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol in a pinch.

3. Put on the mask. “Cover your mouth and nose with the mask and pull the straps over the back of your head,” says Dr. Ferraro. “Make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.”

4. Don’t fidget with it. When wearing the mask, you should avoid touching your face and the mask, or else you risk letting infected particles get inside. 

5. Replace when needed. Replace the mask when it gets damp and do not reuse single-use masks. “To remove the mask, take it off from behind, discard it immediately in a closed trash can, and clean your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer,” says Dr. Ferraro. You can also wash cloth masks, if they're made for reuse.

What If I Don’t Have a Face Mask?

If you don’t have a face mask on hand—or you don’t want to deplete the limited supply on the market—you can make your own with a scarf, handkerchief, bandana, or other fabric. “Some studies have shown that any barrier that limits the spread of respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes can be helpful,” says Dr. Ferraro. Indeed, “some areas are asking people to make cloth face masks or use 3D printing to make up for the shortage of face masks for health care workers.”

Healthy Americans that aren’t being exposed to the coronavirus can also use other prevention methods, including covering your cough and sneeze, practicing social distancing, and washing your hands frequently. “You can help protect your family through washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, and cleaning and disinfecting surfaces often,” says Eric Ball, M.D., a pediatrician at CHOC Children’s Hospital in California. 

It’s especially important to wash your hands after using the restroom, before eating, and before touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Also clean up whenever you might’ve come in contact with contaminated droplets. 

What’s more, you should “avoid touching your face with your hands and teach your children how to properly cough and sneeze into their elbow or a tissue,” adds Dr. Ball. He recommends staying in your home as much as possible and maintaining at least six feet of distance from other people if you must go out in public.

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