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What protection do face masks offer against corona viruses?
Many people try to protect themselves against coronaviruses with face masks. But how sensible are such protective measures really? A new study shows that surgical masks actually appear to offer effective protection against seasonal viruses and corona viruses.
A recent study by the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the University of Hong Kong found that the use of surgical masks can protect people from coronavirus infection. The results of the study were published in the English language journal "Nature Medicine".
Reduced number of airborne viruses
In experiments in the laboratory, the masks significantly reduced the amount of different airborne viruses. This is particularly interesting because there are always debates about whether such protective measures are effective and sensible. For example, there is an opinion that surgical masks outside the medical field are not a useful precaution.
Availability of the masks is limited
A debate about the effectiveness of such masks for protection against COVID-19 takes place at a time when we are already faced with a dangerously inadequate supply of masks. And there are various complications regarding the use of the masks, apart from the lack of availability.
Some employers prohibit the use of masks
For example, some retailers do not let their employees wear masks. This is based on the fear of sending negative signals to customers. In the United States, there have even been physical attacks against Asian Americans wearing masks to protect them.
Transmission is restricted by masks
The results of various studies indicate that masks can significantly limit the transmission of flu viruses, rhinoviruses and also coronaviruses by the infected (which often have no symptoms in the case of the novel coronavirus). For example, a 2013 study found that surgical masks can help limit flu transmission.
Shall we all wear masks now?
The likelihood that masks could protect against COVID-19 justifies a new look at whether everyone should be encouraged to wear such masks when they need to go to shops or other locations during the current COVID-19 curfew. This could make sense, even if it only slightly limits the transmission.
Do coronaviruses only spread through contact and droplets?
Previous studies have shown that the coronavirus and other respiratory infections usually spread in close contact. Some people have interpreted this as meaning that the disease can only spread through contact and large droplets, such as coughing or sneezing.
Infection with COVID-19 from other people's breath?
However, the statement is only a hypothesis. The current study, on the other hand, shows that tiny, aerosolized droplets can actually diffuse through the air. This means that COVID-19 could be infected by breathing - and especially by breathing in the breath of nearby infected people. This happens regardless of whether the person concerned already has symptoms or not.
Masks reduced viruses in respiratory droplets and aerosols
246 people suspected of having a respiratory viral infection were recruited for the study. The extent to which the virus was exhaled with and without a surgical mask was then examined. "In 111 people who were infected with either the coronavirus, the influenza virus or the rhinovirus, the masks reduced the detectable virus in the respiratory droplets and aerosols of seasonal coronaviruses and in the respiratory droplets of influenza viruses," says study author Dr. Nancy Leung of the University of Hong Kong participating in the study in a press release.
Are there any restrictions?
Although the experiment took place prior to the current pandemic, COVID-19 and seasonal corona viruses are closely related and can have a similar particle size. However, the study also found that the masks used did not reduce the emission of rhinoviruses.
Wearing face masks from infected people slows spread
"The potential of surgical masks to reduce seasonal coronaviruses in airway droplets and aerosols means that such masks can slow the spread of COVID-19 when worn by infected people," added study author Professor Benjamin Cowling of the University of Hong Kong added. But other protective measures could possibly be even more effective than masks, the researchers add. Examples include the improvement of ventilation in public spaces such as grocery stores and the installation of UV-C lamps near the ceiling. (as)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.
- Nancy H. L. Leung, Daniel K. W. Chu, Eunice Y. C. Shiu, Kwok-Hung Chan, James J. McDevitt et al .: Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks, in Nature Medicine (published April 3, 2020), Nature Medicine
- Wearing Surgical Masks in Public Could Help Slow Pandemic’s Advance, New Study Suggests, University of Maryland School of Public Health (Published April 3, 2020), University of Maryland School of Public Health