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Can face masks keep you from getting sick?



A report  found that face masks can help slow down the spread of airborne diseases (Photo: Shutterstock)

I remember going to visit a patient at the hospital and being asked to wear a face mask before entering the room. This was around the same time coronavirus, COVID-19, had started spreading around the world. I got scared not because I was afraid of getting sick but because that mask was extremely uncomfortable. How do doctors manage to keep them on during 10 hours of surgery? I wondered.

I also didn’t know how effectively this thin piece of cloth was going to protect (i) me from contracting anything and (ii) the patient from getting infected. So I decided to do a little research.

COVID-19, like other respiratory illnesses, is spread by droplets which are released when a patient coughs or sneezes. Other modes of transmission are through touch, when you sneeze on your hand and touch a surface or touch your eyes and nose and then touch a surface or person. For the purposes of this story, let’s focus on airborne infection.

A report published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases found that face masks can help slow down the spread of airborne diseases. They, however, cannot fully prevent infection since your eyes are still exposed and if you touch them, you risk getting infected.

In another report, it was found that face masks weren’t as effective in preventing the spread of infectious droplets that can survive longer in the air.

Fool proof protection

For fool proof protection, the face masks need to provide a tight seal around the mouth and nose. Most masks that are readily available in the market, mostly surgical masks, do not give this kind of protection.

They also do not filter the air therefore tiny droplets such as those which cause illness can find their way to your mouth and nose.

Respiratory illnesses, is spread by droplets which are released when a patient coughs or sneezes (Photo: Shutterstock)

Dr Jake Dunning while speaking to the BBC said, “There is in fact very little evidence of widespread benefit from their [face mask] use outside of these clinical setting.”

He pointed out that to get maximum benefit from a face mask, the wearer would have to ensure that it is worn all the time, changed frequently and disposed of in a safe way.

For added protection, you (the wearer of the mask) also need to be standing at least six feet away from the infected person.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention nonetheless points out that respirators, which do contain a filter, can provide better protection since they clean the air of harmful airborne particles.  

Although respirators are a better option if you wish to protect yourself against airborne diseases, there have been reports of discomfort and difficulty breathing when wearing them.

According to Richard Martinello, an infectious disease specialist, it isn’t recommended that you wear a face mask. Nevertheless, if you wish to, ensure that you wear it correctly, over your mouth and nose and secure it behind your ears.

To better reduce chances of infection, avoid touching your face, wash your hands thoroughly, try and stay away from people with flu-like symptoms (sneezing and coughing), and covering your mouth when coughing and sneezing.

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