Does a mask protect you or others?

The CDC recommends wearing a mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Some studies suggest that communities that adopt mask-wearing show fewer infections. It is important to say that here we are talking about cloth masks, not surgical masks or respirators.

Wearing a mask helps keep others healthy

If you’re sick, (even if you don’t have symptoms), you can spread the virus through respiratory droplets. Talking, coughing, and sneezing can all produce these droplets. A mask catches these droplets so they don’t spread to infect other people. This is called “source control”--preventing the person with an infection from spreading it to others. For example, a man infected with COVID-19 wore a mask on a transcontinental flight, and no one else in the plane got sick. 

How does source control work?

A study out of Duke University used lasers to capture the number of aerosol droplets emitted with various types of masks. They found that masks greatly reduced the number of droplets. (Here are some things to consider when picking the  right kind of mask, and make sure it fits properly.)

Does wearing a mask protect you from getting sick?

The main reason to wear a mask is for source control. But some doctors think how sick you get with COVID might depend on how much of the virus gets into your system in the first place (sometimes called the “infectious dose”). That means that if you’re wearing a mask that blocks some of the virus, you might have a more mild case, even if you still get sick.  

Surgical masks and N95s offer more protection from getting sick. However, N95s only work well when they are fit by professionals, and they are in short supply right now. So N95s should only be worn by healthcare workers

Masks can be a safe, helpful part of your risk reduction strategy

While it can be a little uncomfortable, most people get used to wearing a mask. Remember to regularly wash your reusable mask and do not touch them while you’re wearing them. And maintain social distance to keep you and those around you safe. Wearing a mask can help, but it’s not a substitute for staying a safe distance apart!


Last update: August 16, 2020, 1:36 pm ET

Science review: GA, GSN, JAB