As activity resumes but the coronavirus continues to spread, many places — including Washington state — are requiring people to wear masks whenever they leave home to lower their chances of spreading the virus.

But, like with anything new, masks have also been the subject of much speculation and misinformation.

We’re here to cut through the noise and show you what the experts are saying about masks and coronavirus safety.

FACT

Masks are for everyone, not just people who feel sick.

Not all people infected with the coronavirus develop symptoms, but they may still transmit the virus to others. Even people who eventually develop symptoms may be infectious before those symptoms appear. So, even if you don’t feel sick, masking up can help you avoid unwittingly spreading the virus.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Evidence grows that masks slow spread of COVID-19

FACT

Your mask must cover your mouth and your nose.

Respiratory droplets containing the virus can transmit via the nose, so if your mask covers only your mouth, it isn’t offering full protection (and if you’re just wearing it around your chin, it isn’t doing anything).

The top of the mask should sit just under the bridge of your nose, and the bottom of the mask should come down below your chin. It should be snug but comfortable and without wide gaps between the mask and your face.

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Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Study shows why it’s important to wear a mask that covers your nose

FACT

Wearing a mask is safe for most people.

Almost everyone can breathe freely while wearing a mask. Masks don’t affect your intake or retention of oxygen or carbon dioxide, and they don’t affect your blood oxygen levels, despite rumors to the contrary circulating on social media. Oxygen and carbon dioxide are tiny and can pass freely through the fabric. It’s larger respiratory droplets that the mask catches, and those droplets in your breath are what carry the virus.

The people who should avoid masks are children under 2 years old, and anyone who has trouble breathing or who can’t take the mask off without help. These folks should practice physical distancing, including staying home as much as possible, and take other preventive measures to avoid spreading the virus.

CDC-recommended alternatives and adaptations for when masks can’t be worn

Source: University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


FACT

You should still stay 6 feet away from people outside your household, even when you’re wearing a mask.

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Masks are just one of many preventive measures we can take to slow the spread of the virus. In addition to a wearing a mask, you should continue to keep your distance from other people, avoid crowded areas, wash your hands often and stay home if you feel unwell.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


FACT

You still need to wear a mask outside

If you’re outdoors by yourself or with only people from your household, you may not need to wear a mask. Otherwise, your mask should be on. Always have a mask on hand when you leave the house.

Source: University of Maryland Medical System


FACT

Cloth masks are better than nothing at reducing the risk of spreading the virus.

The point of a mask is to keep one person’s potentially infectious respiratory droplets from reaching another person. The fewer droplets in the air — released by talking, sneezing or coughing — the lower the risk of being exposed, or exposing someone else, to the coronavirus.

Non-medical-grade cloth masks are a sufficient barrier for keeping most respiratory droplets in check — especially if you and others around you are all wearing masks. Even if some virus particles get through someone’s mask and yours to reach you, it will be fewer than might otherwise be passed along, which can mean a less severe illness if you do get sick.

Medical masks should be reserved for front-line health care workers. And N95 masks with valves in the front, like those worn by construction workers, should be avoided altogether; wearing one protects you, but it funnels your concentrated breath outward where it could infect other people.

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Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, San Francisco Department of Public Health


FACT

If you had COVID-19 previously, or had a positive antibody test, you should still wear a mask.

Scientists don’t know enough yet about how much protection antibodies provide, and for how long, in people who’ve had COVID-19. So, a positive antibody test doesn’t indicate whether you could get infected again and pass the virus to others. It’s best to err on the safe side and continue to wear a mask and practice other virus-prevention measures.

Source: University of Maryland Medical System, UW Medicine

Dr. Vicky Fang, medical director of UW Medicine primary care and population health, discusses testing for antibodies to the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. (Courtesy of UW Medicine)
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Do you have questions about the coronavirus that causes COVID-19?

Ask in the form below and we’ll dig for answers. If you’re using a mobile device and can’t see the form on this page, ask your question here. If you have specific medical questions, please contact your doctor.