April 15, 2020
Masks 101: What you need to know during the COVID-19 pandemic
BY Laura Nathan-Garner
Last updated on June 24, 2020
The best things you can do to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) are practicing social distancing, staying home and washing your hands frequently and properly, and wearing a mask when you go out in public.
“Cancer patients should wear a medical-grade face mask or fabric mask anywhere they go,” says our infectious diseases and infection control expert, Roy Chemaly, M.D. “Everyone else should wear a cloth face mask when going out in public.” That’s because social distancing can be harder to maintain in these spaces.
“Wearing a mask can also provide a visual cue, reminding others to keep their distance,” says Chemaly. “This can be especially important for cancer patients, who are uniquely vulnerable to COVID-19.”
Wearing a fabric mask won’t necessarily keep you from breathing in droplets that cause COVID-19 and other viruses. But, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wearing a mask can help slow the spread of the coronavirus, especially from those who may have COVID-19 and not realize it.
“Wearing a mask can also keep you from touching your face and mouth, which can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 germs,” says Chemaly.
Here’s what to know about wearing a mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 germs.
When wearing a medical mask, make sure the blue side faces outward
If you're putting on a medical mask, make sure the blue side faces outward. The white side should face your mouth.
The top of the mask may be indicated by a purple strip, which should be placed across your nose.
Your mask should fit snug to your face, covering your nose to below your chin.
Make sure your fabric mask fits properly
There are a lot of fabric face masks available for purchase, and many people are making their own. “There’s no guarantee these fabric masks work to prevent COVID-19 exposure and infection,” Chemaly says.
But to increase the chances that your fabric mask can help prevent the spread of COVID-19, the CDC recommends you wear one that:
- includes multiple layers of fabric
- fits snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
- secures with ear loops or ties
- allows you to breath easily
Wash your fabric mask after use
After wearing your fabric mask, be sure to clean it. You can do this by putting it in the washing machine.
But make sure that your cloth mask can be machine washed and dried without damage or change to its shape. “If there is damage or the mask no longer fits snugly, it’s no longer serving its purpose and shouldn’t be worn again,” says Chemaly.
Unless you’re a cancer patient, don’t use medical face masks or N-95 respirators when going out in public
When healthy individuals use face masks or N-95 respirators when they’re out and about, this takes away from the supply needed and used by hospitals.
“Only cancer patients and those with compromised immune systems should use medical face masks, when available to them, in public,” Chemaly says. “Everyone else should use a fabric mask.”
Cancer patients visiting one of MD Anderson’s campuses will receive a medical face mask to wear at our screening entry points.
Some people shouldn’t use any type of face mask
Because masks cover up your nose and mouth, they’re not right for everyone.
Avoid using face masks:
- on kids younger than age 2
- you have trouble breathing
- on anyone who can’t remove the mask unless help to do so is available
A fabric mask is only one part of your COVID-19 protection toolkit
It's important to wear a mask when going out in public, but a mask alone may not keep you from getting COVID-19.
“However, if you wear a mask in conjunction with practicing social distancing, staying home whenever possible and washing your hands frequently, it can help protect others and reduce the spread of COVID-19,” Chemaly says.
“It’ll also set a good example for others when you’re out, reminding them to practice social distancing and do their part to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.”
- What types of masks work best against COVID-19?
- What counts as COVID-19 exposure?
- COVID-19 herd immunity: 7 questions, answered
Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.
Wearing a mask can provide a visual cue, reminding others to keep their distance.
Roy Chemaly, M.D.