What is a novel or new coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Can a face mask protect you from infection with COVID-19?
Can a face mask protect you from infection with COVID-19?

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases like acute respiratory syndrome. They are named for having the shape of a crown surrounding the virus particle. A novel coronavirus is a newly identified coronavirus strain not previously recognized.

In 2019, a new coronavirus strain named COVID-19 originating in Wuhan, China, began causing severe and potentially fatal pneumonia and respiratory illness throughout the world. The 2019 Wuhan coronavirus is related to the coronaviruses that caused the epidemics severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).

As with outbreaks from those earlier epidemics, people in Wuhan and other outbreak cities rushed to buy surgical masks to wear in public in the hope of protecting themselves. But do face masks work to prevent the coronavirus contagion? They can help -- although in a limited way -- because of how the coronavirus spreads.

How does a coronavirus (COVID-19) spread?

Coronavirus originally spread from animals to humans and then from person to person. Researchers are trying to work out the variety of ways that the new coronavirus spread. COVID-19 had killed thousands in China as of early 2020 and also broke out in cities across the globe despite drastic quarantine measures.

Early in the epidemic, scientists had learned the following facts about the new virus' transmission:

  • Coronavirus spreads via respiratory droplets from an infected person.
  • You may be at risk when you are within 6 feet from the infected person.
  • Airborne respiratory droplets when the infected person coughs or sneezes can land on other people's mouth or nose and cause the virus to spread.
  • It may be possible to get infected by touching a surface or object that has the virus and then touching one's own mouth or nose.
  • Viruses may stay infectious on surfaces like door handles, etc., up to 9 days at room temperature.
  • Researchers think people are most contagious when they have the most severe symptoms.
  • People can be infectious before they start to show symptoms.
Can face masks prevent the spread of COVID-19?

COVID-19 Symptoms & Signs

Medical researchers estimate that the incubation period varies from 2 days to about 14 days. Symptoms may begin like the flu but go on to develop fever, cough, and shortness of breath that is severe enough to warrant hospitalization in many patients. Although early in this outbreak, Chinese researchers suggest that people who are infected but don't show symptoms (incubation period) may be contagious. This allows the virus to spread more effectively from person to person and makes it more difficult to isolate infected patients.

Can wearing a face mask protect you from the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Face masks can play a role in preventing the infection, but that role is limited. A healthy individual in a normal situation does not need to wear a mask, as per CDC recommendations. A face mask is not the ideal solution for protection from the new coronavirus for the following reasons:

  • A surgical mask does not fit tightly over the nose and mouth.
  • It is not possible to prevent airborne virus infection.
  • It is difficult to keep a mask on for long periods of time.
  • When you touch the mask, you lose the protection and must replace the mask, and dispose of it safely.

A surgical face mask is highly recommended for people who have the coronavirus infection or have a high risk of exposure. It offers a certain amount of protection against infection from your own hands or droplets from the cough or sneeze of an infected person. You should wear a face mask if

  • you are infected and sick with the virus,
  • you are caring for a person infected with the virus,
  • you are a health worker, or
  • you are in contact with infected people for any other reason.

It is essential that caregivers dispose of the mask after every interaction and use a new one any time they are in close confines with an infected person.

People who care for infected people in a medical setting wear an N95 respirator, a mask with a special air filter designed to protect one from tiny airborne particles.

These masks are designed to fit a person's face and are usually rounded in shape. Medical personnel receive special training to fit them properly so they do not breathe around the edges of the mask and defeat its purpose.

These N95 masks are not recommended for the general public.

How can people protect themselves from the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

At present, there is no vaccine to prevent COVID-19, the Wuhan coronavirus infection. The practice of good hygiene is a better way to prevent the spread of the virus. The best way to prevent illness is to avoid exposure to the virus. Standard recommendations to follow include the following:

  • Wash hands often for at least 20 seconds.
  • Wash hands after you use the restroom.
  • Avoid touching the eyes, face, or nose with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid going to areas where there is an outbreak.
  • Leave areas of outbreak.
  • Avoid close contact with infected people.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
  • Cook meat and eggs thoroughly.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your mouth with tissue when you cough or sneeze, and then throw the tissue in the trash.

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Medically Reviewed on 3/20/2020
References
Pathak, Neha. "Can Wearing a Mask Protect You From Coronavirus?" Medscape.com. Jan. 29, 2020. <https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/924531>.
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