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Mask or no mask? When it is—and isn't—worth wearing

A woman with a furrowed brow wearing a face mask.

Feb. 10, 2020—Whether you're worried about a harsh flu season or the coronavirus outbreak, you might wonder if it's time to protect yourself with a face mask. The answer? Probably not. Most healthy people don't need to wear one, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most face masks are loose-fitting and breathable by design. That means they can't stop you from breathing in very fine particles spread by someone else's coughs or sneezes. They are only designed to block large droplets or splashes.

So their real value comes into play when sick people, not healthy people, wear them. Face masks can help stop those large, germ-laden droplets from landing on nearby people or surfaces. That may help to slow the spread of the infection.

If you're sick, you might want to wear a face mask when you're around other people—for example, in a doctor's waiting room. Doctors may also advise you to wear a face mask in other situations—for example, if you have a weak immune system or are getting chemotherapy.

People may also be asked to wear a face mask while they're visiting someone sick in the hospital.

Use them safely

If your doctor recommends wearing a face mask, it's important to use it properly. Otherwise you might spread an infection. That means:

  • Don't use a face mask more than once.
  • Never share face masks.
  • If your mask is damaged or soiled—or breathing through it is difficult—replace it with a new one.
  • Always discard face masks safely. Put them in a plastic bag and toss them in trash. Then wash your hands right away.

Your best defense

For the rest of us, there are more reliable ways to stay healthy than wearing a face mask in public:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
  • Don't touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Try avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • This year—and every year—get vaccinated against the flu.

When you're sick, you can protect other people by:

  • Covering your coughs or sneezes with a tissue.
  • Staying home until you're better.

If someone in your home is sick, check out these tips on setting up a sickroom to help keep the rest of the family well.

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