Wearing a face mask while in public transport, shops and crowded places could help protect vulnerable people from Covid-19
Researchers have found that masks have a consistent but small protective effect – particularly in shared public spaces.
While the evidence is not strong enough to recommend widespread use of masks in the general population, the researchers say that there is enough evidence to support vulnerable people deciding to use them for short periods when in temporary higher risk situations – such as on public transport, visiting shops or in healthcare settings.
Something like a sneeze or cough near you would become less likely to cause infection if you wear a mask. It’s a small reduction in risk, but might be very important to especially vulnerable people.
Wearing masks at home may also reduce the odds of well housemates becoming ill. The risk reduces, if an ill person and their well contacts wore masks.
Should you be wearing a mask?
You could wear a mask. Overall, the study found that the evidence was too uncertain and the possible protective effects too small to recommend widespread use of face masks to protect against Covid-19.
The best way to protect yourself and others is to follow the government guidelines for social distance and wash your hands regularly.
Masks are currently in very short supply and it is important that the people who are most at risk of catching the infection and possibly spreading it to others are health care workers. We are all in danger if doctors and nurses can’t wear masks because the general public bought up all available supplies.
However, there is enough evidence to endorse the use of face masks for short periods of time by vulnerable individuals when in transient higher risk situations – such as on crowded public transport or visiting busy shops.
When should face masks be worn?
Wearing a face mask while out-and-about on busy public transport, in shops and other crowded places could help protect people from respiratory infections like Covid-19.
The study conclusions are that people who wore masks, usually surgical grade, were less likely to get respiratory symptoms from casual exposure in the community. Something like a sneeze or cough near you would become less likely to cause infection.
What about at home?
The protective effect is not large within a home setting because people have lots of repeated types of contact, so there are many ways for the germs to transmit.
Also, it’s hard to wear masks correctly for many days at home. Wearing a mask correctly is difficult because masks interfere with things like sleep, eating and brushing teeth. It’s usually unrealistic to keep them on all the time. They can be uncomfortable, hot, cause skin reactions or simply feel anti-social. Masks also need to be disposed of correctly to prevent transmission. Most of the original controlled experiments reported that people who were assigned in the experiment to wear masks most of the time found this difficult.
This is why washing hands remains so important. Washing hands well only requires 20 seconds of concentration occasionally throughout the day. In contrast, it is difficult to wear masks correctly for many hours over many days.
What’s the correct way to use a face mask?
It actually depends on the design of the mask and what kinds of activities you have been doing. Each mask comes with its own instructions. A very general rule would be to assume a mask is no longer protective after wearing it for three hours. Wearers should wash their hands before they put on a mask, and importantly after they take it off and dispose of it.
What about non-disposable masks (made from cloth, and veils?)
Face veils did not prevent developing respiratory symptoms. But surgical masks aren’t that protective either. There is no evidence about whether other types of cloth face coverings have ever helped to prevent respiratory infections when worn by ordinary people doing ordinary activities. In laboratory experiments, the cloth alternatives didn’t seem to perform as well as surgical masks could to stop transmission droplets.
Are disposable respirator masks much better than surgical masks?
In lab experiments or when health professionals wear them: Yes. When people in households and the community wear inexpensive respirators, the respirators only protects as an ordinary surgical mask. Wearing a respirator correctly is harder than wearing a surgical mask correctly. There’s probably no advantage to wearing a respirator if it hasn’t been fitted correctly to your individual face.
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