Should you be wearing a face mask to try to stay healthy?

You’ve probably seen people in news coverage wearing surgical face masks. Do they help?

Going to the grocery store, a movie theater or getting on an airplane can seem scary when you think of all the germs you will come into contact with in the course of a day. During flu season and with news of the novel coronavirus, you may be looking for ways to better protect yourself against airborne illnesses.

“At this time the Center for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend the routine use of surgical masks in public,” says Dr. Adam Treitman, chief of infectious diseases and medical director of infection control at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, IL. “Specifically, those people who are well will likely not benefit from wearing one in public settings, and in doing so could actually be increasing the risk of transmission.”

When someone wears a surgical mask for long periods of time,they will need to adjust the mask throughout the day, pulling or tugging at it with their hands that may have picked up germs along the way. Now they are touching their face more often than they normally would, increasing the chances for those germs to be transferred from their hands to their mouth or nose.

“The surgical masks become ineffective once they are soiled,” says Dr. Treitman. “What a healthy person should do instead is focus on key factors for wellness like handwashing, applying hand sanitizing alcohol gels and trying to keep some distance from those that are sick.”

There are some unique circumstances. You might see masks made available to patients in hospital waiting areas or doctor’s offices. In this case, the mask may be useful in settings where there is a concentration of germs and sick individuals to make transmission less likely, but they still are not perfectly effective.

“In these areas, an individual with symptoms such as fever and cough should wear a mask to help reduce the spread of respiratory droplets, but it is important the mask is worn properly and placed over the nose and mouth,” Dr. Treitman says. “There is little to no benefit if not worn correctly.”

There is one mask known as the N95 which is proven most effective at preventing the spread of airborne pathogens. These are masks worn by healthcare workers, such as those who handle COVID 19 and other illnesses such as tuberculosis. The mask is tight fitting and must actually be fitted to one’s face. These are not recommended for public use as they cannot be worn for long periods of time. The mask shields the individual from small airborne particles and there is no air movement in between the mask.

Unless you are a healthcare worker or a sick patient waiting to be seen by a professional, the use of a surgical mask may present more risk than reward. The best chances at staying healthy are keeping hands clean throughout the day and feeding your immune system with a healthy diet. If you do happen to get sick, stay home from work or school to prevent the spread of germs to others.

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