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UPDATED: Wearing a mask incorrectly while healthy might actually make you sick

Intermountain Healthcare, University of Utah Health and Latter-day Charities are rolling out a massive grassroots effort to ensure that caregivers who are treating COVID-19 patients have the protection they need to be safe. (Image credit: mihalec / Getty Images)

Update: The CDC now recommends that wearing a mask or cloth face covering should be worn in public settings as part of a strategy to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

This recommendation comes as recent studies of the virus show that individuals who are infected but not outwardly showing signs of sickness can transmit the virus to others.

“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity—for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing—even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.  In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

Face coverings should not be the only step to prevent transmission of the virus, though, according to the World Health Organization.

“The use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted.”

Those other measures, the WHO says, are things like frequent hand washing, social distancing and avoiding touching the face.

The WHO still stands by its original recommendations that there is no evidence that wearing a mask by a healthy person in a community setting is beneficial.

The original version of this story is below.


Wearing a mask incorrectly while healthy might actually make you sick

SALT LAKE CITY (Feb 27, 2020)– Health officials say you shouldn’t be wearing protective face masks as a preventative measure against getting sick. In fact, they say wearing a mask might make you more likely to catch something.

Fears over the spreading coronavirus have led to a massive shortage of protective face masks across the world with many hoping they can prevent the sickness by wearing a mask.

Celebrities like Kate Hudson and Gweneth Paltrow have even been sharing photos of themselves masked up while traveling internationally.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson recently both shared selfies of the masks they are wearing as fears over the coronavirus have spread. (PHOTOS: Instagram)

But not all masks are created equal.

On their web page, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it doesn’t “recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19.” The agency recommends instead that the protective masks be used by those who are showing symptoms.

Wearing a face mask – Two types

Surgical masks

The mask most commonly seen in areas affected by the spread of COVID-19 is the surgical mask. Health officials say this mask is designed to prevent the spread of germs by catching particles expelled by sneezing or coughing. It is not designed to prevent healthy people from getting sick.

coronavirus death

FILE — Travelers wear face masks as they walk outside the Beijing Railway Station in Beijing, Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. France reported the first coronavirus death in Europe after a Chinese tourist died after being initially turned away from two French hospitals. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

N95 Respirator

According to the Food and Drug Administration, the N95 respirator is an example of personal protective equipment used to keep liquid and airborne particles from contaminating the wearer’s face.

“If worn properly, a facemask is meant to help block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria), keeping it from reaching your mouth and nose.”

face mask

Close up of protection respirator for N95 Filter face mask in hand

Wearing a face mask incorrectly might put you at greater risk of getting sick

However, the FDA says that both of these masks are just one part of an infection-control strategy.

“While a facemask may be effective in blocking splashes and large-particle droplets,” the agency says, “a facemask by design does not filter or block very small particles in the air that may be transmitted by coughs, sneezes or certain medical procedures.”

“Facemasks also do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the facemask and your face.”

Surgical and N95 respirator masks are only recommended for those who work with infected people for extended periods of time. In other words, people like healthcare workers.

Dr. David Eisenman a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at UCLA told ABC News the vast majority of masks being worn won’t do very much to help healthy people.

“I think people see a mask and they see an illusion of protection. [People think] that if they put the mask on it will somehow block the viruses from getting into their mouth or noses when they breathe, Eisenman said.

“That’s just not the case. Anyone who does not have a respiratory illness, meaning a cough or sneezing, should not be wearing any type of mask, whether a surgical mask or a respirator.”

That sentiment is shared by the New York Commissioner of Health.  Dr. Howard Zucker urges the public not to buy masks. He says they should be just used by healthcare workers.

Why some masks are dangerous

Improper use is one of the major concerns surrounding a healthy person using a face mask.

“People do not use their masks correctly. They play with it, they wear it too long, they rub their nose underneath it,” Eisenman says.

Even facial hair can prevent a mask from being effective.

A graphic created by the CDC that shows some of the appropriate and innapropriate facial hair styles that could prevent protective equipment from working. (CREDIT CDC)

 

The WHO says that another issue is improperly removing a mask. The WHO says that in order to remove a mask, the front of the mask should never be touched.

“Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water…To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of the mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.”

Additional face mask resources


FDA: Masks AND N95 Respirators

CDC: To Beard or not to Beard