Ever since news of the coronavirus outbreak spread in early January, face masks have become a common sight on busy streets, crowded buses and in airport terminals everywhere. Reports of diminishing supplies and sold-out stock have led many of us to wonder, “Should I be wearing a face mask, too?”
“Fear is a powerful motivator,” says Dr. Andrea Boggild, clinical director of the Tropical Disease Unit at Toronto General Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Toronto. “People feel better when they believe that they’re doing all they can to prevent this infection.” Unfortunately, she says, face masks may not make much of a difference when it comes to stopping the spread of viruses like the coronavirus.
What’s the difference between a face mask and an N95 mask?
Run-of-the-mill face masks—also referred to as surgical masks, dental masks or isolation masks—are designed to provide a barrier to catch fluid droplets from the person wearing the mask, Boggild says. “Because they’re loose fitting, they don’t provide an absolute barrier to viruses that are spread by inhalation.”
Meanwhile, N95 masks (technically called N95 respirators) are tight-fitting and filter out 95 percent of minute particles (including viral particles) in the air—but the catch is these respirators typically need to be fitted by a professional “fit-tester” in order to work properly, Boggild says. “As a result, N95 masks are only used by healthcare workers when they might be encountering a very high load of virus particles in the air, such as when caring for a patient who is coughing or sneezing.”
Is it true that face masks might even do more harm than good?
Researchers in Australia discovered that, on average, people touch their faces 23 times an hour. If you’re repeatedly reaching up to adjust an ill-fitting face mask, any germs on your hands may spread to the mask—and to you. These masks weren’t designed for everyday use by the general public, Boggild says. “Surgical masks also become soiled over time from exhalation of moist air, and they need to be changed frequently.”
Because healthcare workers are exposed to higher concentrations of respiratory viruses and are in much closer proximity to sick patients than the rest of us, it makes sense for them to wear masks to reduce the transmission of viruses, Boggild says. She adds that, unless you work in a healthcare facility, your chances of contracting the coronavirus are low.
“Only very limited person-to-person transmission has occurred outside of China, and the virus is not spreading in the general population here,” she says. “So, wearing a mask out in public in order to protect yourself against the coronavirus is unlikely to be helpful.”
If you’re already sick, should you wear a face mask in public?
If you have a mild respiratory tract infection, isolate yourself at home until you’re symptom-free, Boggild says. Avoid school, work and errands while you rest, drink plenty of fluids and take over-the-counter pain and cold medicine as needed.
But if you have a respiratory tract infection severe enough to warrant medical attention, Boggild does recommend wearing a face mask on your way to the doctor. And if you’ve travelled to China in the past two weeks or live with family who have travelled and are sick, then call ahead so that your doctor is aware of the situation before you arrive.
Why people in Canada shouldn’t worry about getting the coronavirus
The Public Health Agency of Canada says the risk to Canadians from the coronavirus is low. “People shouldn’t be overly concerned and should go about their regular activities as they would during any seasonal influenza season,” Boggild says. Those “activities” should include getting a flu shot and washing your hands frequently. “Hand washing is particularly important before touching mucous membranes, such as the mouth, nose, and eyes.”
For now, Canadians are advised to avoid all non-essential travel to China and all travel to the Hubei province. When travelling out of country, Boggild recommends booking a pre-travel medical consultation: “It’s an opportunity to both update routine immunizations as well as to receive any that are recommended or required for your trip.”