Coronavirus Outbreak: Can face masks really protect you? Here's what we know

SAN FRANCISCO -- As fears rise over China's coronavirus outbreak spreading to the United States, more and more people are looking for ways to protect themselves.

One of the most in-demand items are surgical face masks, but can they actually prevent you from catching the virus and should you wear one?

Officials: Masks not recommended right now


Health officials across the U.S. are not recommending that the general public wear a face mask to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

The reason?

There have only been a handful of reported cases in the U.S. and the chance that the general public would be exposed to the virus is very minimal.

So in essence, it would be a waste of your time to wear one but there's also no harm in doing it.

Many people have told ABC7 News that they feel psychologically better doing something to protect themselves than doing nothing at all.

But do masks really prevent diseases?


It's a little inconclusive. Most of the studies on this have only been conducted on healthcare professionals in workplace settings. The general finding is that masks do make a difference when it comes to reducing the risk for spreading disease to healthcare professionals. However, the benefits of masks to the general public is not well known.

While it might make a difference, a lot of that depends on the type of germs people are looking to avoid and the type of masks that they are wearing.

Sick people should wear the masks


The one group of people that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is recommending to wear face masks right now, is people who have caught the virus.

The reason is to avoid spreading their germs.

They add that this is generally a good practice for any respiratory virus, including the flu.

"You should wear a face mask when you are in the same room with other people and when you visit a healthcare provider," says the CDC website.

Surgical masks are designed for this specific purpose and are widely available.

What are the best types of masks?


The CDC issued the following guidelines on two different types of masks - surgical masks and N95 respirators. Both of these are commonly worn by health care employees who work around sick people.

Surgical masks are commonly found in drugstores and are in high-demand in China right now. They have sold out on many websites after the Chinese government advised anyone going outside to wear a mask.

The CDC says surgical masks are intended to protect the wearer from "large droplets, splashes, or sprays of bodily or other hazardous fluids" as well as protecting others from the wearer's respiratory emissions. However, the CDC says these masks don't reliably protect the wearer from inhaling small airborne particles.

N95 respirators, however, protect wearers from small particles and large droplets. The CDC says they can filter out 95% of airborne particles.

These masks are recommended by the CDC for healthcare professionals treating patients who are infected with the coronavirus.

The downside with N95 masks is that they have to properly fit the wearer in order to be effective. They are supposed to be tight-fitting so if they don't fit properly they lose their effectiveness.
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