A close-up photo of a person wearing a facemask.

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 November 23, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused millions of infections and hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide since late 2019.

As the disease continues to spread, health officials continue to recommend people take preventive measures to protect themselves.

One way to limit the risk of COVID-19 spread is by wearing a face covering or facemask. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people wear a cloth face covering while out in public. Pennsylvania requires people to wear one when inside any public place as well as outdoors when they cannot maintain sustained social distance.

Doctors at UPMC believe masks play a crucial role in protecting against COVID-19 spread.

“Wearing a mask significantly reduces the risk of passing COVID-19 to others and being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19,” says Graham Snyder, MD, medical director of Infection Prevention and Hospital Epidemiology at UPMC.

Do Facemasks Really Help Prevent the Spread of COVID-19?

Yes, facemasks combined with other preventive measures can help slow the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets. When people who are infected cough, sneeze, talk, or raise their voice, it releases droplets. Those droplets then can land in the noses or mouths of people nearby, or potentially be inhaled into their lungs, which can infect them. Wearing a facemask can minimize the risk of passing COVID-19 to others.

I Don’t Feel Ill. Do I Really Still Need to Wear a Facemask?

People can spread COVID-19 even if they aren’t showing symptoms.

By wearing a face covering in public, you can reduce the risk that you unknowingly pass COVID-19 to others. Many people experience mild COVID-19 symptoms, but for others, the condition can be life-threatening. People older than 60 and those who are immunocompromised are most at risk.

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Who Should Wear a Facemask?

Because it’s possible to spread COVID-19 while asymptomatic, everyone over the age of 2 years old should wear a facemask in public places.

Children under 2 should not wear facemasks. Other exceptions, according to the CDC, include:

  • People who are having trouble breathing.
  • People who are unconscious or incapacitated or unable to remove the mask without assistance.

When Should I Wear a Facemask?

You should wear a facemask in situations where you are around people who are not members of your own household.

In other words, you should wear a facemask in public places and when around persons who are not part of the same household.

Pennsylvania currently requires a facemask in all indoor public places (health facilities, grocery stores, restaurants, etc.) and in outdoor spaces when you can’t consistently maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

If you are showing symptoms of COVID-19, you should not go out. You should wear a face covering any time you are near other people.

What Kind of Facemask Should I Wear?

To preserve the supply of N95 respirators and surgical masks for health care workers and first responders, the CDC recommends the general public wear cloth face coverings.

Cloth face coverings can be effective source control if they cover the nose and mouth, reducing the spray of respiratory droplets.

You can buy a cloth facemask or make one.

How Should I Wear My Facemask?

Facemasks should completely cover your nose and mouth. Typical facemasks can be secured with ear loops or ties.

The facemask should fit snugly while also allowing you to maintain your breathing.

Before putting your mask on, wash your hands. Handle it by the ties or ear loops and secure it to your face. Do not touch the mask while wearing it.

Masks should be washed after each use, either in the laundry or by hand, using a bleach solution. When you are out of public, remove the mask, handling it by the ties or ear loops. Put it in the washing machine to be laundered. Wash your hands afterward.

I’ve Heard Facemasks Can Be Dangerous.

According to a widely circulating rumor, facemasks can cause harm to the wearer because he or she may re-breathe carbon dioxide particles that a mask would trap after exhalation.

This rumor is false. Wearing a mask will cause no harm to the wearer if worn properly.

The carbon dioxide particles released when we breathe are tiny, much smaller than the respiratory particles that the masks are designed to stop. The carbon dioxide particles can safely escape when you are wearing a facemask.

How Else Can I Protect Myself From COVID-19?

According to the CDC, masks are most effective when widely used in public along with other preventive efforts.

Other ways you can help limit the risk of COVID-19 spread include:

  • Social distancing: Staying 6 feet away from people who are not members of your household, and avoiding crowded places.
  • Hand hygiene: You should wash your hands frequently, using soap and water and scrubbing for 20 seconds before rinsing. If soap and water are unavailable, you can use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Cleaning and sanitizing: You should regularly clean and disinfect frequently touched areas in your home. This includes doorknobs, light switches, tables, counters, cell phones, television remotes, and more.

For more information about UPMC’s efforts against COVID-19, go to UPMC.com/COVID19.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, How COVID-19 Spreads. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/how-covid-spreads.html

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.