The new coronavirus — or COVID-19 — is spreading across the United States. Health officials are working to understand how to contain it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that everyone in the general public wear a cloth mask in addition to continuing to follow social distancing guidelines when they must go out into public.
Path to improved health
At first, the CDC said not to wear a mask. Why do we now need to wear cloth masks?
As we receive more data about COVID-19, we are learning more about how it spreads. Data shows that many people already have the virus who do not know that they have it. They are asymptomatic, or not showing symptoms. It can take up to 14 days for a person who has been infected to develop symptoms. That means that when these people go to places like grocery stores and cough or sneeze, they are unintentionally spreading the virus.
The new CDC recommendation is not intended to prevent you from getting COVID-19; it is to protect other people. In order to flatten the curve or slow the rate of spread of the virus in your community, assume that you already have the virus. Wearing a cloth mask will help to contain your own germs should you cough or sneeze in a public place. It will help to prevent you from giving COVID-19 to other people.
Should I try to buy a surgical mask or an N95 respirator?
No. Only health care professionals should wear surgical masks or N95 respirators. We are currently experiencing shortages of proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for the doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals who are working to fight COVID-19. Do not use a surgical mask or N95 respirator if you are not a health care professional. If you already have some of these in your home, you can donate them to a local hospital or health care facility.
Do I still need to practice social distancing?
Yes. Wearing a mask should not take the place of social distancing. You should still stay at least 6 feet away from other people when you go out in public. A cloth mask may help to prevent you from giving the virus to others, but it does not protect you (the wearer). It is still important that you stay home as much as possible and continue to properly wash your hands.
What makes an effective cloth mask?
An effective cloth mask should:
- Cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly against the sides of the face.
- Be secured to the ear with ties or loops.
- Include multiple layers of fabric.
- Allow for breathing without restriction.
- Be machine washable and dryable without losings its shape or fit.
How do I make my own cloth mask?
The CDC has posted instructions for how to make your own cloth mask from materials you may already have at home. You can use a t-shirt or a bandana to make your own cloth mask. See instructions from the CDC.
Things to consider
When you wear a mask, it is important to know how to wear it properly. When using a mask, you should:
- Wash your hands with soap and water before putting on the mask. If you do not have soap and water available, used an alcohol-based hand rub.
- Cover your mouth and nose with the mask. Make sure it is snug to your face.
- Do not touch the mask while using it. Do not touch any other areas of your face.
- As soon as you return home, take the mask off and put it in the wash.
- Remove the mask by touching it from behind. Do not touch the front of the mask. Throw it in the washing machine and wash your hands immediately.
Note that children under the age of 2 and anyone who has trouble breathing should not wear a face mask.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Where can I donate surgical masks or N95 respirators I have at home?
- If I have tested positive for COVID-19, will wearing a cloth mask around the house help to protect my family from getting the virus?
- What should I do if I have trouble breathing with a cloth mask on? Is there anything else I can wear?
- Should I wear a mask when going for a walk around my neighborhood?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.