Diabetes Forecast

Coronavirus: What to Know About Wearing a Face Mask

Get the details on when to wear a mask, why it helps, and how to make one


If you’re looking to fellow social distancers for a consensus on masks, you’re unlikely to find one. You might see a young woman wearing a surgical mask as she walks her dog, then pass an elderly jogger wearing no mask at all. You may have even seen a mother of four at the park, each child seeming to follow completely different guidelines. Who’s right, who’s wrong, and what even counts as a mask? It’s understandable that you have questions, so let us help pull back the veil.

Who should wear a face mask, and when?

The recommendation on masks has changed as the number of confirmed cases of the new coronavirus (COVID-19) has increased. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initially recommended masks only for medical workers, caregivers, and those diagnosed with the virus, the agency has expanded that guidance to include the general public.

The CDC now recommends that everyone wear a nonmedical cloth mask when they’re out in public, especially in crowded areas, such as a grocery store or pharmacy, where they’ll be in close contact with others. The only exceptions: children under the age of 2, people who have trouble breathing, and those who are incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove a mask without assistance.

Why the change?

Recent studies from The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine show that many of those who get COVID-19 never show symptoms. Even without symptoms, these people can unwittingly pass the virus through airborne droplets when speaking, coughing, or sneezing. Even those who do show symptoms of COVID-19 typically have a 48-hour window where they don’t have any symptoms.

Covering your face in public, even if you aren’t showing symptoms, helps protect others and slow the spread of the virus.

What’s the difference between the different types of masks?

When experts talk about masks, they’re generally talking about these three:

N95 Mask: A tight-fitting mask made from a plastic called polypropene, the N95 filters out 95 percent of airborne particles, making it very effective. N95 masks are considered critical supplies but, due to a shortage, they should be reserved for health care workers and first responders.

Surgical Mask: Made of unwoven fabric (and sometimes a face shield), this loose-fitting mask protects the wearer against large droplets and helps prevent spreading the virus to others. But it’s less effective than the N95 in terms of protecting against the smaller particles that are spread by coughing or sneezing. These masks, intended for one-time use, are also in short supply and should be reserved for medical professionals.

Cloth Mask: Homemade using easy-to-find cloth materials such as a tea towel, bedsheet, canvas, or 100 percent cotton T-shirt, this is the mask recommended by the CDC for the general public. A cloth mask can catch particles spread through speaking, coughing, and sneezing.

How do I get a mask?

The cheapest and easiest way is to make one using materials you have around the house. For help, check out the CDC’s tutorials. One option involves sewing a covering out of tightly woven cotton, such as a bedsheet. Not sure how to sew? Other options require only a T-shirt or bandanna, scissors, and rubber bands or hair ties.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams demonstrates one quick and easy option below.

Make sure your mask:

  • fits snugly but comfortably against the sides of your face
  • covers both your nose and mouth
  • is secured with ties or ear loops
  • includes multiple layers of fabric
  • still allows you to breathe freely
  • can be washed without damaging it

How do I care for my mask?

Be careful when you remove your mask. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash your hands immediately afterward.

You’ll want to wash your mask regularly, though the CDC doesn’t provide strict guidelines on when to wash. Throwing it in the washing machine with the rest of your laundry is fine so long as you use hot water. And regular detergent will do (bleach isn’t necessary).

Is it OK to just buy a mask?

It depends on the type of mask. In many areas, masks are in short supply. The CDC recommends that medical-grade equipment such as surgical and N95 masks be reserved for health care workers and first responders.

You can, however, buy homemade nonsurgical masks if the DIY route doesn’t appeal. For instance, crafters on Etsy, an online shop for handmade goods, sell a range of cloth masks, but read the fine print before you buy. Be sure the mask will cover your nose and mouth, is made from tightly woven material, has adjustable bands to fit snuggly to your face, is machine washable, and is currently in stock. And toss the mask in the washing machine before using.

Does a mask eliminate the need for social distancing?

Not at all. In fact, while a mask can offer some protection to the wearer, provided it’s used properly, wearing a face covering is primarily about protecting others.

Wearing a mask shouldn’t replace other precautions—such as maintaining a social distance of at least 6 feet and washing your hands frequently—that are aimed at protecting yourself.

Source:Centers for Disease Control and Prevention



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