COVID-19 Face Masks

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

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 facial mask in addition to continuing to follow physical 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 masks?

As we receive more data about COVID-19, we know 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 CDC recommendation is designed to slow the rate of spread of the virus in your community and to protect as many people as possible. 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 help to prevent you from giving COVID-19 to other people.

Do I still need to practice physical distancing?

Yes. 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 vaccines for COVID-19 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) has authorized the vaccines, and the CDC has recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines for people 18 and older.

In clinical trials, all three vaccines proved to be greater than 94% effective in preventing people from getting seriously ill from COVID-19“across age, gender, race, and ethnicity demographics.” Over 100,000 people were included in the three trials.

Eventually, a vaccine will be available for everyone. For now, the supply is limited. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through its independent advisory committee, has recommended the order in which people should receive the vaccination based on increased risk of serious disease from COVID-19. It will be up to individual states to decide the order in which they will administer the vaccine.

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.

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.

For additional details, see the CDC.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Where can I donate N95 respirators I have at home?
  • If I have tested positive for COVID-19, will wearing a mask around the house help to 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?
  • Should I wear a mask when going for a walk around my neighborhood?


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Considerations for Wearing Masks