Four Reasons You Should Wear A Mask When Recommended, According to Experts

It's as simple as good hygiene.

The decision to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic sometimes seemed to become more of a political issue than a health issue, as writer Maggie O'Neill reported for Health in July 2020. "I've never felt quite as at-the-mercy-of-those-around-me as I have during the past four months," she wrote. At the time, there was a lack of national protocol around when and where to wear a face mask, and it wasn't uncommon to be shamed for wearing one and becoming angry when others didn't.

While there wasn't a national protocol early on in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did recommend "people wear cloth face coverings in public settings when around people outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain."

So why all the fuss? Basically, though some people simply didn't want to be forced to do anything— especially by the government—scientists have shown that taking this extra precaution (in addition to socially distancing) helped to significantly curb the spread of coronavirus. Here are some of the top reasons it's important to wear a mask when recommended, plus who should wear one.

Who Should Wear a Mask?

To slow the spread of COVID-19, the CDC recommended almost all healthy kids and adults wear a mask, except for children under the age of 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO) stressed that Americans should not purchase medical-grade surgical masks or N95 respirators, however, for fear that it would deplete dwindling PPE supplies that medical professionals needed to protect them from both airborne and fluid hazards. The WHO recommended cloth or fabric masks for the general public.

Some people were averse to wearing a mask, saying it was difficult to breathe in them. According to Jim Keany, MD, an emergency physician, patient safety physician champion, and former chief of staff at Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, if your respiratory status is truly that tenuous that you're not able to breathe through a cloth face covering, you should stay home and not expose yourself to any risk. "If you are truly that fragile, a COVID-19 infection could be a death sentence," he previously told Health.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends mask use based on both community and individual risk—low, medium, or high. If the COVID-19 community level of risk is "low", "wear a mask based on your personal preference, informed by your personal level of risk," per the CDC.

If the community level of risk for COVID-19 is "medium" and you are immunocompromised or at high risk for severe illness, the CDC recommends you talk to your doctor about wearing a mask or respirator while indoors in public. If you're getting together with someone who's at higher risk for severe illness, the CDC recommends getting tested prior to seeing them and wearing a mask while you're with them.

When the community risk level is "high", the CDC recommends everyone wear a mask indoors in public settings. And if you're at risk for severe illness or immunocompromised, they recommend a mask or respirator that offers greater protection.

Surgical or medical face masks are for:

  • Health care workers
  • People with COVID-19 symptoms
  • People taking care of someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19
  • People who are 60 years old or older (when social distancing isn't possible in areas with widespread COVID-19)
  • People who have underlying health conditions (when social distancing isn't possible in areas with widespread COVID-19)

Cloth face coverings or fabric masks are for everyone when:

  • COVID-19 is widespread
  • Physical distancing of at least 6 feet isn't possible (including on public transportation, workplaces, stores, and other crowded environments)

Why Should You Wear a Mask When It's Recommended?

1. They reduce viral transmission (if worn correctly).

"Surgical masks and cloth coverings can reduce viral transmission by 70% if everyone wears them and wears them correctly over [their] nose and mouth," Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network and clinical assistant professor at the Department of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine previously told Health, emphasizing the importance of not only wearing a mask, but wearing it properly.

According to the CDC, that means washing your hands before putting on your face mask and making sure it covers your nose and mouth once in place. It should also fit comfortably, but snugly on your face. If it's a disposable mask, the CDC recommends throwing it away after one use. If it's a cloth mask, you can store it in its own bag and reuse it that day, then wash it that night for the next day (but if it becomes wet or dirty during use, wash it before using it again).

2. They prevent pre-symptomatic spread, preventing others from getting sick (before you know you have COVID-19).

According to a January 2021 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network Open, "transmission from asymptomatic individuals was estimated to account for more than half of all transmissions". In other words, you could be carrying the virus in your body before you get any symptoms of it (aka pre-symptomatic)—or you may have the virus but never get symptoms, in which case, you would be asymptomatic.

Wearing a mask is an easy way to reduce the risk of unknowingly spreading the infection, but it's not a panacea—people also need to observe social distancing and practice good hand hygiene. "Masks don't take the place of these other measures," Eric Westman, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University previously told Health.

3. You're protecting yourself from getting sick.

While experts went back and forth throughout the pandemic about whether wearing a mask would also protect the one wearing it, the CDC states that studies do show that the person wearing the mask is also partially protected from being exposed to infectious droplets coming from other people with the virus—better than no mask at all. Referring to cloth masks, in particular, the CDC also says that "multiple layers of cloth with higher thread counts have demonstrated superior performance compared to single layers of cloth with lower thread counts."

4. They're good hygiene in general.

Before the pandemic, medical professionals—from surgeons to dentists—wore masks to protect themselves from contracting potential illnesses from patients; they also wore them to prevent their own germs from spreading. In some cultures, wearing a mask when one is ill or has allergies is common. Wearing a mask to protect yourself and others when in a high-risk situation is simply good hygiene.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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