COVID-19 Face Masks

Last Updated July 2021 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

To slow the spread of COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend that people who have not been vaccinated wear a face mask, in addition to continuing to follow physical distancing guidelines. On July 27, 2021, the CDC recommended masks for vaccinated people in certain areas of the U.S. to prevent the spread of the highly-contagious Delta variant. Here’s what you should know now.

Path to improved health

What is the current guidance on wearing masks?

If you are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you need to wear a mask around others to prevent spreading the virus. Many people are asymptomatic and do not show symptoms, so it’s important to wear a mask even if you feel well. Wearing a mask will help to contain your own germs while you are talking, but especially should you cough or sneeze in a public place. It will prevent you from giving COVID-19 to other people who aren’t vaccinated yet or who are unable to get the vaccine, like younger children. Additionally, the CDC recommends universal masking in K-12 schools, which includes stuff, students, and visitors even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Everyone wearing masks is the best strategy to have in-person school this fall. The CDC also recommends that vaccinated individuals wear masks when in public indoor places if they live in an area with increased or substantial transmission of COVID-19. See if your community is included.

Do I still need to practice physical distancing?

Yes, this is still important. Wearing a mask should not take the place of physical distancing. You should still stay at least 6 feet away from other people when you go out in public. A mask may help to prevent you from giving the virus to others, but also protects you (the wearer) by reducing the amount of virus exposure. It is still important that you stay home as much as possible and continue to properly wash your hands.

Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?

Three COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized for emergency use in the United States from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson (Janssen). The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the vaccines, and the CDC recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 12 and older, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for people 18 and older. Getting vaccinated is a key step to ending the pandemic and keeping your community healthy. Find out where you can get the vaccine with this COVID-19 vaccine finder.

What if I am fully vaccinated – do I have to wear a mask?

While the science shows that people who are fully vaccinated (2 weeks after their final dose) had reduced risk of transmitting early variants of COVID-19, new studies show that the Delta variant is different. The Delta variant is highly contagious because it can replicate to high levels in the airways of infected people. This means that vaccinated people may be able to transmit the Delta variant at a similar rate as unvaccinated people. So, many schools, businesses, and local governments will continue to require masks. Plus, there are many people who aren’t able to get vaccinated right now, like smaller children, so continuing to wear a mask outside your home could be important for protecting your family and community.

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

Note that bandanas and neck gaiters are not adequate substitutes for masks.

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. For additional details, see the CDC.

Questions to ask your doctor:

  • Should I wear a mask when I’m outside?
  • If I have tested positive for COVID-19, will wearing a mask around the house protect my family from getting the virus?
  • What should I do if I have trouble breathing with a mask on? Is there anything else I can wear?

Resources:

CDC: How to Protect Yourself and Others When You’ve Been Fully Vaccinated
CDC: Guidance for Wearing Masks for Unvaccinated People
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Considerations for Wearing Masks