Disclaimer: At UPMC HealthBeat, we strive to provide the most up-to-date facts in our stories when we publish them. We also make updates to our content as information changes. However, education about COVID-19 can shift quickly based on new data, emerging variants, or other factors. The information in this story was accurate as of its publish date. We also encourage you to visit other reliable websites for updated information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and your state and local governments.
Updated Nov. 23, 2020
Some viruses can spread through respiratory droplets. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, it releases droplets into the air. Those droplets then can land in the mouth, nose, or eyes of uninfected people close by and make them sick.
With the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), a new virus that causes the disease COVID-19, people may wonder if they should wear facemasks to stay healthy.
In April 2020, health care officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began recommending that the general public voluntarily wear homemade face coverings when out in public.
As of July 1, 2020, Pennsylvania began requiring residents to wear facemasks in public to limit the risk of COVID-19 spread.
Masks are mandatory in all indoor spaces when around people who are not from your household, as well as in outdoor spaces where you cannot consistently maintain 6 feet of social distance between yourself and people who are not members of your household.
Exceptions to the facemask requirement include:
- People who can’t wear a mask because of a medical condition, such as a respiratory problem, mental health issue, or disability
- People unable to remove a mask without assistance
- People under 2 years old
- People who are deaf or hard of hearing, or people who are communicating with people who are deaf or hard of hearing, if seeing the mouth is necessary for communication
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Do Facemasks Protect Against Infection?
Although facemasks cannot guarantee against infection, they are an important tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, spreads through respiratory droplets.
According to the CDC, wearing a mask properly — i.e. over your nose and mouth — can keep your respiratory droplets from reaching other people. This can help limit the risk that you spread the coronavirus to others. Wearing a facemask also provides you some protection against infection, the CDC says.
You should wear a facemask even if you do not feel sick, as it’s possible for asymptomatic people to spread COVID-19.
N95 respirators and medical masks
N95 respirators provide more protection against infection. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health tests and approves N95 respirators. They require a fit test, and wearers must check the seal when they put them on.
The CDC outlines the difference between common facemasks and N95 respirators, which health care workers wear to prevent respiratory infection.
Members of the general public should not purchase medical-grade facemasks or N95 respirators and instead should wear cloth face coverings. The CDC recommends masks that have two or more layers, completely cover your nose and mouth, and fit snugly against the side of your face with no gaps.
Who Should Wear Facemasks?
To prevent the spread of infection, CDC recommends that health care workers, infected people, or people showing symptoms wear facemasks.
Members of the general public should wear masks when around people who are not from their hospital — especially in public — even if they’re not showing symptoms. Exceptions include:
- Infants and children under 2 years old
- People who have trouble breathing
- People who are incapacitated or cannot remove the mask without assistance
Healthy people should wear cloth face coverings that conceal the nose and mouth. They should not purchase medical-grade facemasks, including surgical masks and/or N95 respirators, as these are needed most by health care workers. The general public should wear only cloth face coverings when out in public.
Facemasks and face coverings do not provide complete protection. While wearing one, it is important to continue practicing social distancing.
You can create your own no-sew facemasks using cloth materials like a bandana, T-shirt, or scarf, or you can purchase disposable or reusable face coverings from many different retailers.
How Can I Prevent Infection?
Face coverings in public may be one preventive step you can take in the fight against COVID-19, but there is more you can do:
- Avoid close contact with sick people.
- If you are sick, stay home. Don’t go to work or school and put others at risk.
- Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
- Wash your hands regularly, especially after coughing or sneezing, before eating, and after going to the bathroom. Use soap and water and wash for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, or nose.
- Sanitize frequently touched objects and surfaces.
About Infectious Diseases
If you have a disease caused by bacteria, fungi, parasite, or virus, the UPMC Center for Care of Infectious Diseases can help. Our team of experts is specially trained in the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases, including of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, illnesses caused by international travel, and more. We research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods. Visit our website to find an expert near you.