Photos from regions hit by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus all share the same trademark: People wearing face masks.
As China and more than two dozen other countries count a rising number of infections, surgical masks are being snatched up by fearful citizens all over. But how much protection do they really offer – and for whom?
Despite the widespread use of face masks, health agencies such as the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Germany stress that there is insufficient evidence that healthy people who cover their mouths will significantly reduce their risk of infection.
Instead, the most effective protective measures are good hygiene, especially with the hands, and staying away from sick people.
Experts have repeatedly said it’s a waste of time for healthy people to try and protect themselves from supposedly airborne viruses by wearing a face mask in public.
Moreover, by wearing a mask you might find yourself lulled into a false sense of security, neglecting the more important hygiene measures such as washing your hands, the RKI researchers say, pointing to similar information from the World Health Organization (WHO).
When you buy your mask in a pharmacy, in some countries it might even come with a warning along the lines of: “Wearing a surgical mask offers only limited protection against infection and is not officially recommended for healthy persons”.
Pharmacists stress that such masks for the mouth and nose are instead designed to help someone who is sick prevent the spread of their illness.
Health experts meanwhile point out that their use in hospitals differs greatly from everyday life, as the staff there deal with sick people and suspected infections and are therefore exposed to a higher risk.
Masks should essentially remain reserved for doctors and nurses, physician Clemens Wendtner of a clinic in Munich said recently. There are clear indications that wearing them for a long time is senseless, Wendtner said.
Moistening the mask also removes the barrier protection within 20 minutes, meaning that if you need them to be effective, you would have to be change them regularly. It’s also important that the mask fits closely to your face.
One advantage of a face mask, however, is that there’s less contact between possibly contaminated fingers and your mouth or nose.
Only so-called FFP3 masks offer additional protection against infection for healthy people, medical experts say. And yet even with the special masks it’s essential that you put them on correctly and change them often enough.
However, such masks are not considered suitable for prolonged use in everyday life, as they can make it difficult to breathe.
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