COVID-19 and Masks: What You Need to Know

Public health experts are now encouraging the use of cloth face masks and coverings in public settings to help prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

UNC Health Family Medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD, helps us answer common questions about masks and protection from COVID-19.

Why is it important to wear a mask out in public?

COVID-19 is spread mainly from person-to-person by droplets of mucus that are ejected when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know who to avoid; some people with COVID-19 never experience symptoms, and those who will eventually develop symptoms are contagious before they get sick.

So, to protect ourselves and others, we must act as if we are all infected with COVID-19. That means wearing a mask when you’re in public and cannot guarantee physical distance with others to keep your germs confined inside the mask.

“The mask you wear is not intended to protect you,” Dr. Ruff says. “It is to protect others in case you have it (COVID-19) but aren’t showing symptoms.”

Remember, you don’t need to wear a mask while driving or when you’re not in an enclosed public space or at risk of coming near someone. Also, children under age 2 should not wear a mask, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What is the difference between the masks healthcare providers wear and the ones the general public should wear?

The surgical masks and N95 respirators that healthcare providers wear are designed to protect them from patients who may be coughing and have COVID-19. They are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They are waterproof, so they protect against any droplets that are coming at you,” Dr. Ruff says, “whereas the cloth one that you wear in the grocery store is not waterproof. It is intended to protect others from your breath.”

The more of us who wear cloth masks in public, the more protected the community will be—and that benefits everyone. Learn how to properly wear your mask [PDF].

How can you best take care of your mask?

Don’t touch the outside of your mask; assume it could have virus particles on it. Take the mask off and put it on touching only the ties or elastic that go around your ears. As soon as you take it off, wash your hands.

You can wash your mask in a washing machine and dry it in the dryer. “Treat it like any clothing item you have,” Dr. Ruff says.

Ideally, you should have enough masks that you can wash yours after each use. But, if you only have one, be sure to wash your mask at least once a week.

“If you’re going to the grocery store once a week, you would come home and wash the mask,” Dr. Ruff says.

Also, safely store your mask in a clean place such as a zip-close or paper bag. Never store it in a purse or pocket. And don’t just throw it on your car passenger seat, Dr. Ruff says. A cloth mask is never going to be sterile, but the idea is to keep it as clean as possible.

What if you don’t have a mask?

While you can make your own mask out of an old T-shirt, the point of a mask is to cover your mouth and nose. So any type of face covering that does that will work. This includes bandanas, scarves and balaclavas, which encase the neck and lower face.

Whatever you’re using to cover your mouth and nose, “be sure to still wash your hands after each use and wash the face covering right after,” Dr. Ruff says.

For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.