HealthHealth | Infections | March 5, 2020 | By Lauren Smith

Should You Wear a Face Mask to Prevent Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Many reach for face masks when outbreaks happen.

Should You Wear a Face Mask to Prevent Coronavirus (COVID-19)?

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When an outbreak like COVID-19—commonly known as coronavirus—happens, you often see footage or photos of people donning masks covering their noses and mouths. It’s easy to get the impression that face masks are Outbreak Prevention Rule #1, but this simply isn’t the case.

In fact, many communities report face mask shortages during outbreaks. Wearing a face mask when you don’t need one can deprive this tool from someone who actually needs it. In other words, with limited resources, certain people should have priority over others when it comes to face masks. Plus, wearing a face mask improperly could actually worsen your risk of infection with the novel coronavirus.


So who should wear a face mask—and why? The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have a few guidelines regarding whom face masks should be reserved for, and how to get the most benefits from them.

1. Wear a mask if you are coughing and sneezing

If you have a respiratory infection (such as COVID-19 or the seasonal flu), you can emit infectious droplets when you talk, sneeze, or cough. Others can breathe this in and become infected. That’s where the face masks come in handy: by obstructing this transmission of infectious droplets.

You do *not* need to wear a face mask if you are sick but in isolation, such as at home. (This goes without saying, but if you're infected with coronavirus or suspect you are infected, you should stay home.)

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2. Wear a mask if you are caring for a friend or family member who is infected

If you are healthy, but you’re taking care of someone who is infected (or is suspected to be infected), wearing a face mask can be a great way to reduce the spread of the disease. Obviously, this also includes healthcare personnel, who are at an increased risk of exposure.

If you are someone who should wear a face mask, you should learn how to wear and care for a face mask properly, including tips for safe disposal. Find out how to put on and take off a face mask properly from WHO here.

3. Wash your hands frequently whether or not you are wearing a face mask

A mask is only beneficial if it’s used properly and in combination with good hygiene practices. Whether or not you’re wearing a mask, be sure to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds regularly, especially:

  • Before eating
  • After going to the bathroom
  • After coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
  • After caring for or contact with someone who is sick
  • Before putting on a face mask
  • After removing and discarding a face mask

If a sink is not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Either way, be sure to get those easy-to-miss areas of the hands, such as the back of the hands, the fingertips, in between the fingers, and the wrists.

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Moral of the story: If you are a healthy individual, it may not be beneficial to wear a face mask everywhere you go. The perks of being “extra cautious” may not outweigh the cons of keeping the face masks from the people who truly need them (i.e., infected persons and the people caring for them).

Instead of wearing a face mask unnecessarily, there are many preventative habits to reduce the spread of COVID-19 you can follow, such as washing hands regularly and limiting face-to-face contact.

Reviewed by: Preeti Parikh, MD . Review date: March 4, 2020
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