Since the coronavirus hit our headlines a few weeks ago, and now a lot of people seem to be getting ill, not only in China but also in other countries, you may be wondering whether you need to wear a face mask to protect yourself against it. So, the advice of the public health authorities in most places is that masks are really not necessary and they may actually be unhelpful.
And one of those reasons is because people will assume that they are protected when perhaps they’re not. The advice they do give is to keep well clear of anybody who has got a nasty virus. That’s not the necessarily the coronavirus, of course, but if you’re worried then you should keep your distance. They don’t think the particles can travel more than about a metre. It’s very different in China where lots of people are wearing masks, and in fact they’ve been instructed to do so. And the reason for that is that there is so much of the virus around. So they are protecting other people. The advice is different in different countries, and because we have so few infections in a country like the UK or in the United States, on the whole, it’s not really a sensible precaution to wear a mask. The coronavirus family are airborne viruses, so we know they are spread through the air by people coughing and sneezing. The droplets can either be inhaled by people who breathe them in, or they can land on surfaces which then people might touch with their hands and their hands go to their eyes or their nose or their mouth, and in that way it enters their own body.
The sort of face masks that we see mostly in pictures seem to be the standard surgical face masks that are worn in the operating theatre. There is another face mask as well as the N95, and that has a different sort of shape, it’s a bit more round. The standard surgical masks may help prevent some of the transmission but they really are not foolproof at all. You can’t stop the viral particles going around the edges for a start and also, they are going to collect on the outside of the mask. And then as you take it off, they’ll go all over your hands. If your hands go to your face then you could get infected too. There is a way of getting them off which involves pulling them off with the straps only but it’s still a bit of a business. The N95 mask will protect you against particles but they’re very hot to wear and they’re very difficult to put on.
You have to be trained almost to do it. When it’s on your breathing is quite restricted, too. Wash your hands and keep washing them. This is maybe the most important thing because the virus actually is transmitted from hands to other hands or from skin to skin quite easily. If in doubt, or if you haven’t washed your hands, don’t put your hands anywhere near your eyes, nose or mouth. If you do feel the need to sneeze or cough yourself, use a tissue and then bin it straight away afterwards, and wash your hands.
If you don’t have a tissue so you can’t do that, then sneeze into the inside of your elbow because that keeps any virus away from your hands where you might transmit it to other people..