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Are Face Masks Really Effective at Preventing Illness?

Proper handwashing may be a better line of defense against coronavirus, flu

closeup photograph of N95 air filter mask.

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En español | Editor's Note: On April 3, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that all Americans — even people who feel healthy — should wear cloth face masks or homemade face coverings in public when 6-feet social distancing is difficult to maintain in an effort to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. Experts emphasize that other preventive measures, such as hand washing and social distancing, are still crucial. Medical masks, including N95 respirators and surgical masks, should be reserved for health care workers. This story was originally published on Jan. 27.

Surgical masks are a common sight outside of hospitals during cold and flu season — or in times of an outbreak, like with the coronavirus. But how much protection do they really provide?

The answer is “some,” says Amesh Adalja, M.D., an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security.

A typical disposable mask can help prevent large-particle droplets from reaching your mouth and nose — two common areas where viruses enter the body. “But you really have to be meticulous when wearing them and not put your hand underneath them and touch your face or do anything that would contaminate your face and kind of obviate the reason for having the mask,” Adalja says.

And that can be difficult to do, especially since face masks are uncomfortable, “and people inadvertently will have an itch on their mouth or their nose and they'll scratch at it,” he adds.

Choosing a mask with a snug fit is key to keeping germs away from your face, says Amira Roess, a public health expert and professor of global health and epidemiology at George Mason University. She recommends an N95 respirator, which is higher quality than most loose-fitting disposable masks and, when fitted properly, can provide a more effective seal.

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N95s, available at most drug stores and home improvement stores, block large-particle droplets and most small particles that are transmitted by coughs and sneezes, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) says. Even still, a properly fitted N95 does not completely eliminate one's risk of illness, the agency warns. And they are not designed for children or for people with facial hair.

Wash your hands to ward off germs

The most effective way to reduce your risk for a respiratory illness or infection is with proper hand hygiene, experts say. Wash your hands before you eat, after you use the bathroom and after leaving a crowded place, Roess advises. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends scrubbing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds and using a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol when soap and water are not an option.

Avoid sick people when you can, and get the flu shot if you haven't already. Also: Don't discount the importance of good sleep and a healthy diet.

"If you're worn down, if you're not getting enough sleep, you're going to be more susceptible to getting the cold, the flu or what have you,” Roess says.

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