Will Wearing a Mask Protect Me from Getting COVID-19?

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You’ve no doubt heard a lot about wearing masks lately in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. From people saying you will be completely protected from contracting SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) to people saying wearing masks is outright harmful to your health, you may be wondering what effects wearing a mask actually has. And if you’re pregnant you want to do everything you can to protect yourself and your baby. Before we talk about masks, though, it would be helpful to understand how the virus is transmitted.

SARS-CoV-2 is a very contagious virus, meaning it is easily spread from one person to another, that can affect multiple organ systems including the lungs and the heart. The primary pathway for SARS-CoV-2 to be transmitted is through the nose or the mouth via something scientists call respiratory droplets. Respiratory droplets are those little droplets of water that hang in the air for a short time after a person exhales, talks, coughs, or sneezes. If a person has COVID-19, those droplets likely contain the virus. If another person then inhales those droplets, he or she may become infected. That being said, whenever you wear a mask, it’s important to cover both your nose and mouth. Otherwise, there’s really no reason to wear it.

Masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in two ways: either by limiting the dispersion of respiratory droplets from a wearer’s nose or mouth, or by protecting the wearer from inhaling the droplets. We will talk about two types of masks here, each of which can serve a different purpose. First, we have the cloth mask that is made by sewing a piece of cloth into a shape that covers your nose and mouth with either ear loops or ties to secure it in place. Then we have the N95 (or the KN95) that really should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers.

With the cloth mask, we’re more concerned with containing the spread of the virus. If you wear a cloth mask, you are not necessarily protecting yourself, but you are protecting others in the event you should happen to have the virus and not know it. (Keep in mind that the most contagious time during the course of the disease is shortly before and shortly after one begins to show symptoms. So even if a person doesn’t feel sick, that person can unknowingly spread COVID-19 to others.) For this reason, if you’re pregnant (and even if you’re not) it’s important that those around you—those with whom you are not quarantined, that is—wear a mask to protect your health. It’s just as important, if you must go out, to wear a mask yourself to protect others and stem the contagion of this horrible virus that is preventing us all from living our normal lives.

N95s are NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)-approved masks that filter out very, very small particles. (A virus is a very, very small particle.) For that reason, N95s are effective at protecting the wearer from contracting the virus should they happen to be exposed. There are a couple of caveats, however. First, most workers are fit-tested for their N95s. If the mask does not fit properly, you are not protected. Second, some N95s have a valve in them so they are more comfortable for the wearer when they exhale. The valve lets air out, but does not allow airflow in. That being said, if someone around you is wearing an N95 mask with a valve, that person is protected from the virus, but you are not protected should that person happen to be carrying the virus.

You may have heard of KN95s as well. These are just N95s that have been imported from China. Beware, however, of the fit. Recently there has been an alert that counterfeit KN95s have been distributed. These are masks that claim to filter the virus-sized particles but have ear loops. Ear loops will not form a proper seal and will not protect the wearer from the virus. The FDA has banned these in healthcare setting.

There is a lot of misinformation about wearing masks out there. One bit of misinformation is that wearing even cloth or surgical masks is dangerous to the wearer because it increases carbon dioxide levels. I just have to say this: surgeons, and others who work in the operating room, wear surgical masks all day and they are not suffering from elevated carbon dioxide levels.

One last very important point: It is important to remember that wearing a mask does not give a person the license to not socially distance. There has been some concern that mask wearers will feel a heightened sense of security and will forego taking other precautions such as maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others and frequent hand-washing. Wearing a mask does not mean we can stop being vigilant. It is just added protection against the spread of the disease.

Janette DeFelice
Dr. Janette DeFelice is a writer currently focusing on how the changing environment affects our health. She holds a Doctor of Medicine degree from Chicago Medical School where she taught clinical and diagnostic skills to beginning medical students, and a Master’s degree in Humanities from the University of Chicago. She also has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science. Her writing can be seen online at BeTheChangeMom, ChicagoNow, and Medium, and she’s very excited to have published her first novel, Delia Rising: A Ballet in Three Acts. She lives in Chicago’s west suburbs with her school-age twins, her husband, and a family cat named Clara Barton.

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