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More than 85% of the world's countries and regions have been affected by the new coronavirus - SARS-CoV-2 - as of late March 2020. Globally, over 16,000 people are reported to have died and nearly 400,000 have been infected by COVID-19, with China and Italy reporting the largest number of deaths and infection.

On 22 March 2020, 75 districts across India went into lockdown amid 400 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection and a growing sense of uncertainty as to when the global pandemic - caused by a strain of coronavirus and first found in Wuhan, China in late 2019 - would blow over.

Given these data, it's only natural that people around the world and in India have questions about how to protect themselves from this type of coronavirus infection. Among the most frequently asked questions about COVID-19 is: can wearing a mask protect you against coronavirus infection? Who should wear masks and when? And what type of mask should be used at this time?

Read on for everything you wanted to know about the use of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2019-20.

  1. Can masks protect against coronavirus infection?
  2. The correct way to wear a mask and dispose it
  3. Takeaways
  4. Doctors for How useful are masks against COVID-19 and how to use them
  5. How to sanitize masks

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the use of masks is recommended only in specific cases. Even then, "medical masks cannot protect someone when they are used alone" - the masks, when recommended, must be combined with "hand hygiene and other preventive measures", according to the WHO. 

COVID-19 usually presents with mild flu-like symptoms including cough, fever and difficulty breathing. People infected by the novel coronavirus, or suspected to be, must either wear medical masks or the N95 masks (often worn for protection against particle pollution), according to the WHO.

The novel coronavirus is spread mainly by tiny droplets of cough and sneezing, and anyone showing symptoms like that must wear a mask and seek medical care. In other words, patients should wear a mask to avoid giving the infection to other people. Suspected patients should also wear a mask if they are visiting a hospital or a clinic.

The global health body says “masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water”. It goes on to say that there is no evidence that masks protect anyone from getting this viral infection.

Those who may be taking care of a COVID-19 patient or have similar symptoms have been advised to keep a mask on when they are in the same room as the patient. "If you choose to wear a mask, use it and discard it properly, and clean your hands with alcohol hand rub or soap and water," the WHO has said.

However, newer developments have also found that the virus is able to survive on surfaces and can be transmitted through them as well. It has also been recently found that the virus can be transmitted through the air.

Who should wear masks?

  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Wear a mask if you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 infection.
  • Wear a mask if you are a medical professional or heathcare provider.
  • You only need to wear a mask around a person who has symptoms or is a carrier of the suspected COVID-19 infection - previously known as 2019-nCoV infection.

Most medical masks are not reusable and strict guidelines have been issued by the WHO on how to use them and correctly discard them after use. Remember, masks will only work when combined with hand hygiene and not touching your face frequently, especially if you’re wearing a mask.

The medical mask is worn by medical staff all over the world. It usually has pleats in front, with two closed elastic loops on either end which are secured behind the ears, or four open strings that have to be tied behind the head of a person. It is important to wear and discard it properly, or else it can become a source of infection with the germs that may stay on it.

Here are the instructions on how to wear a mask and discard it, as instructed by the WHO:

  • Before putting on a mask, clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or with soap and water.
  • Locate the metal strip at the top of the mask and place it over the bridge of your nose. 
  • Loop the elastic bands around your ears, or tie the strings behind your head. Ensure that it covers the nose, mouth and chin.
  • After wearing it, do not touch the front surface of the mask which is on your face.
  • To remove the mask, take out the elastic strings from around your ears or undo the strings behind your head without touching the front of the mask.
  • Take the mask off and discard it in a closed bin.
  • After throwing the mask away, clean your hands with alcohol hand rub or soap and water.
  • Clean your hands if you accidentally touch the front of your mask while wearing it.
  • If your mask becomes damp or wet, replace it with a new dry mask. 
  • Do not reuse single-use masks and discard them immediately into closed bins after each use.

Although global health bodies and governments have stressed that personal hygiene, social distancing and self-isolation aren’t the only methods to battle the COVID-19, the WHO guidelines are essential for anyone to protect themselves and their families from getting infected.

As India ramps up its efforts to increase testing through government hospitals and private laboratories, people have been advised to stay indoors and follow the guidelines to thoroughly clean hands often with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitisers, and maintain distance from other people to avoid frequent touch. Patients and suspected patients have also been advised to wear protective masks to cover the mouth and nose as much as possible.

That said, everyone does not need to wear a mask. Masks are essential for medical professionals who tend to many patients every single day. They are also recommended for COVID-19 patients so they don't spread the infection to others. Primary caregivers at home should also wear a mask while tending to the needs of COVID-19 patients.

Wearing a mask alone is not enough - maintaining hand hygiene is crucial. Masks also need to be worn and discarded properly to avoid infection. It is important not to reuse single-use masks.

Only medical masks and N95 masks have been advised by WHO. Other masks do not prevent the virus from getting through.

Dr. Arun R

Dr. Arun R

Infectious Disease
5 Years of Experience

Dr. Neha Gupta

Dr. Neha Gupta

Infectious Disease
16 Years of Experience

Dr. Lalit Shishara

Dr. Lalit Shishara

Infectious Disease
8 Years of Experience

Dr. Alok Mishra

Dr. Alok Mishra

Infectious Disease
5 Years of Experience

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References

  1. Center for Disease Control and Prevention [internet], Atlanta (GA): US Department of Health and Human Services; Frequently Asked Questions about Personal Protective Equipment
  2. Australian Government: Department of Heath [Internet]. Canberra, Australian Capital Territory. Coronavirus (COVID-19) information on the use of surgical masks
  3. World Health Organization [Internet]. Geneva (SUI): World Health Organization; Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks
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