Updated July 2, 2020
Some viruses can spread through airborne 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 public spaces, 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?
Most disposable surgical facemasks do not completely protect against infection, according to the CDC.
The loose-fitting masks are fluid-resistant and can protect against large droplets, splashes, or sprays. However, they don’t provide the same protection against smaller droplets, leaving the wearer still at risk for infection.
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 and instead should wear homemade cloth face coverings when outside the home.
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Who Should Wear Facemasks?
To prevent the spread of infection, CDC recommends that health care workers, infected people, or people showing symptoms wear facemasks.
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 homemade 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.
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. We have specialty units for prevention and treatment of HIV-AIDs, postsurgical and transplant infections, and illnesses caused by international travel. Our faculty research infectious diseases and participate in clinical trials to learn more and develop better treatment and prevention methods.