People are racing to buy face masks amid the coronavirus outbreak, but they probably won't protect you from illness

AP Photo/Kin CheungPassengers wear protective face masks at the departure hall of the high-speed train station in Hong Kong, Thursday, January 23, 2020.

Of the many preventative measures you can take to protect yourself from the new coronavirus, wearing a face mask is one of the most visible. But for members of the general public, health experts don’t think it will help much.

“There’s little harm in it,” Eric Toner, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, told Business Insider. “But it’s not likely to be very effective in preventing it.”

Since the coronavirus outbreak started Wuhan, China, in December, more than 81,000 people have been infected and at least 2,760 have died. Cases have been recorded in 40 other countries. (For the latest case total and death toll, see Business Insider’s live updates here.)

According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best precautions for the public are the standard, everyday ways to avoid all germs: wash your hands frequently, try not to touch your face, and avoid close contact with sick people.

In healthcare settings, however, the CDC has issued stronger directives: Any patients that present flu-like symptoms or have recently travelled to China’s Hubei province should wear surgical masks. That lowers the risk that a potentially infected person could spread the coronavirus to others via saliva or phlegm.

The agency also directed doctors and nurses treating potentially infected patients to wear N95 respirator masks and goggles.

US healthcare providers are preparing for the coronavirus’ potential spread in the US. The CDC said on Tuesday that the prevalence of the disease could worsen and that it “might be bad.”

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said yesterday that the US needs at least 300 million N95 respirator face masks for healthcare workers as the country braces for a potentially rapid spread of the coronavirus. The US currently has 30 million masks.

But for the average person, a mask is still probably not necessary. And as mask shortages continue, buying them up can take them away from medical workers that need them.

Two types of face masks

Looka/Shutterstock; Lunx/ShutterstockSurgical masks (right) and N95 respirators (left).

Face masks are designed to catch large contaminants and particles. There are two common kinds: surgical masks and N95 respirators.

N95 respirators filter out most airborne particles from the surrounding air, preventing wearers from breathing in particles down to 0.3 microns in diameter. These types of masks are often used when air quality is poor due to wildfire smoke or pollution, and they’re designed to fit tightly against one’s face.

When worn correctly, N95 respirators block out at least 95% of small airborne particles. So the respirators can filter out some droplets carrying coronavirus. The coronavirus itself measures between .05 and 0.2 microns in diameter, according to a recent article in The Lancet.

Healthcare workers are required by law to undergo a “fit test” every year to ensure they know how to use N95 respirators properly.

“While you’re wearing this mask, somebody sprays something really nasty around you – it’s a chemical that makes everybody cough their brains out if it gets in their mouth, and it’s a test to see if that mask is really working,” Robert Amler, former chief medical officer at the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, told Business Insider.

More than 3,000 medical workers in China – the epicentre of the outbreak – have gotten infected by the virus.

No health agencies in the US have issued recommendations for the public to wear N95 respirators.

Surgical masks, meanwhile, are designed to keep droplets and splatter from passing from a person’s mouth to nearby surfaces or people. So they’re primarily meant as a physical barrier to keep healthcare providers or sick people from spreading their own mouth-borne germs to patients.

The fit of a surgical mask is far looser than an N95 respirator, with openings around the edges.

Many people do not wear either type of face mask properly, however – wearers often move the masks to the side to touch their faces throughout the day, breaking the barrier that the mask is supposed to create. This makes the protection ineffective. Extended facial hair, as well, can break the seal.

Anyone exhibiting symptoms should wear a mask, the CDC says. They should also call their doctor before visiting a medical office or hospital.

A Chinese girl wears a protective mask as her mother pushes her on a suitcase to board a train at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on January 21, 2020 in Beijing, China.Kevin Frayer/GettyA Chinese girl wears a protective mask as her mother pushes her on a suitcase to board a train at Beijing Railway station before the annual Spring Festival on January 21, 2020 in Beijing, China.

Sales of face masks are spiking

In Wuhan, China, authorities are requiring all citizens to wear masks in public places. The virus seems to have an incubation period of up to two weeks, so people could be sick and spreading germs before they show any symptoms. The city is currently under quarantine.

Many stores in China and cities around the world have reportedly sold out of masks. Cao Jun, general manager for mask manufacturer Lanhine in China, told Reuters on January 23 that demand had already reached 200 million masks per day. Lanhine’s normal production rate is 400,000 per day.

3M, which produces goods like Scotch tape and Post-Its, announced on January 28 that it would boost production of face masks.

Americans looking to buy face masks, meanwhile, have depleted many official Amazon sellers. The vendors are warning against counterfeit masks being sold on the site. Resellers on Facebook are charging up to four times the price and also selling fraudulent masks.

Wuhan marketFeature China/Barcroft Media via Getty Images

Aria Bendix and Hilary Brueck contributed reporting to this story.

Have you been personally impacted by the coronavirus epidemic? Is your city or community on the front lines of this disease? Have you or someone you know been tested or diagnosed? We want to hear your story. Please email [email protected]

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