The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of wearing a face mask to help stop transmission of respiratory viruses, including flu and RSV. It’s one of the prevention measures that can protect people from getting infected and spreading disease to others. That is why face masks are still required at hospitals, clinics, and other health care facilities.
Here’s what you should know about face masks and when to consider wearing one:
Know your COVID-19 community level
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides guidance on mask wearing and other prevention measures based on how much COVID-19 is spreading in your community. Whether you’re vaccinated or not, mask wearing is still important to help slow community spread. For example, when the COVID-19 community level is high, the CDC recommends the public to wear a high-quality mask.
Know your risk of getting sick
Some groups of people are at higher risk of getting infected and severely sick with COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses. Older adults, people who are immunocompromised, people with certain underlying health conditions, and pregnant people are considered high risk. Children are also at higher risk of getting infected with RSV and flu. Practicing prevention measures such as vaccination and wearing a mask will better protect these groups from infection.
Know which mask to wear
The CDC explains that the most protective mask is one that fits well and is comfortable enough to wear consistently. However, there are some masks that offer better protection than others.
- Respirators, such as N95s, provide the highest level of protection, but they may be harder to tolerate or wear consistently.
- Surgical masks and KN95s offer good protection if they are well-fitted to your face.
- Cloth masks provide the least protection but are recommended if it’s the only mask available to you.
Remember, any type of mask is still effective at reducing virus spread. Any mask is better than no mask.
Know that science backs it up
Scientific research has proven that face masks are an important tool to reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) and other respiratory infections. Research has also found:
- Masks block respiratory droplets from getting in or out of your mask—even if someone is asymptomatic.
- Wearing a mask for long periods of time does not impact your health.
- Masks work best when worn correctly by covering your nose and mouth and fitting snug against your face.
- Masks are most effective when everyone wears one.
The risk of getting infected with COVID-19 increases when masks are taken off. “If there’s a mix of people masked and unmasked, your risk increases,” says Emily Spivak, MD, an associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. “Your risk goes up even more if you aren’t vaccinated.”
Know that masks are safe for kids, too
Masks can be worn safely by children two years of age and older. Just like with adults, face masks help protect children from getting infected with respiratory viruses and spreading them to others. Wearing a face mask is particularly important for children with underlying health conditions.
There are several myths about masking and children. It is not true that wearing a face mask makes it harder to breathe or that children breathe in carbon dioxide when they wear masks.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends children to wear a high-quality, well-fitting, and comfortable face mask when the COVID-19 community level is considered “high.” University of Utah Health pediatricians advise parents to look for masks with multiple layers that are comfortable and fit your child’s face. If there are gaps on the sides, choose a different size. If a KN95 mask is available for your child, that is the best option.