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COVID-19 Face Masks

Last Updated February 2022 | 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) and AAFP recommend that people get vaccinated, wear a well-fitting and high-quality mask, and follow physical distancing guidelines.

Studies show that wearing masks in public settings reduces the spread of respiratory viruses like COVID-19. This is especially important for people who aren’t vaccinated or can’t receive the vaccine. The CDC, AAFP, and others strongly recommend universal masking in K-12 schools which includes staff, students, and visitors, even if they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Everyone wearing masks is the best strategy to stay in school.

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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 well-fitting, high-quality 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.

The CDC also recommends that vaccinated individuals wear masks when in public indoor places, especially where there is increased spread of the virus. The vaccines are highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalization, and death. However, it is still possible to become infected and spread the virus, even if you are up to date with your vaccines, especially with the newer and more contagious variants.  Individuals who have a weakened immune system should also wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask even if they are fully vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19.

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 continue to properly wash your hands.

What makes an effective mask?

Consistent use of masks in the community, workplace, and schools is critical for reducing the spread of COVID-19 and ending the pandemic. While any mask is better than no mask, there are different types of masks available with different levels of ability in reducing transmission of COVID-19. High-quality KN95/KF94, and N95 respirators are more effective at reducing spread of the virus than cloth and surgical masks. You can increase the effectiveness of a cloth mask by using it over a surgical mask.

The CDC has provided more information on the types of masks and how to ensure a proper fit.

An effective 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 (you should not be able to see through it)
  • Allow for breathing without restriction

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.
  • Cloth masks should be washed after wearing. Surgical masks/respirators may be placed in a paper bag and reused.
  • Never wear a mask that is wet or dirty. Throw away masks when they lose their shape or the earloops/head bands become loose.

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

 

 

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