Medical masks are shown.
Homemade or manufactured, plain or vibrant, masks protect you and show you care to protect those around you from the virus that causes COVID-19. (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

Face masks stand out as one of the most visible signs of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And with good reason. Wearing a face mask is one of the ways everyone can help fight the pandemic, says Russell Lampen, DO, an infectious disease physician with Spectrum Health.

Whether colorful or plain, homemade or store-bought, face masks provide a barrier that can reduce the risk of spreading the novel coronavirus.

Concern for others

Combined with other measures—social distancing, frequent hand-washing and staying home when sick—we can help protect ourselves and others from the disease by wearing face masks around other people.

“The masks are most effective in preventing the person wearing them from spreading the virus to other people,” Dr. Lampen said.

To wear one in public shows a concern for the health of others, as well as the community.

“When I go into a store, I don’t want the person helping me to get sick,” he said. “I am happy I can go there and pick out what I need. I feel like the least I can do is prevent people at the store from contracting an illness.”

In Michigan and many other states, face masks are required in enclosed public spaces. And they are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Although the CDC initially did not advise face masks, the recommendation changed as more information became available about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19—and the way the disease spreads.

“It appears a significant amount of COVID-19 spread is coming from people who are yet to develop symptoms or people who are asymptomatic,” he said.

So, even if you don’t feel sick, you could unknowingly pass the virus onto someone else. As much as 40% of disease spread may be caused by people who don’t know they carry the virus.

“That’s a very different pattern from what we see with other illnesses,” Dr. Lampen said.

Disease transmission requires two elements: exposure to the virus and exposure to adequate quantities of the virus.

The virus is carried on tiny droplets pushed out into the air when a person speaks. That’s especially true with a cough, which releases 3,000 droplets, or a sneeze, which can release 30,000 droplets.

A cloth mask can reduce the release of those droplets into the air.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” he said. “It’s not an N95 mask. But if you have a dense cotton material, it’s going to be a reasonable filter that is going to reduce your spread of droplets.”

How to tell if the fabric is dense enough? Hold it up. If you can’t see sunlight through it, that is a good indication.

Based on what is known about other coronaviruses, infectious disease experts speculate that a person would need to consume about 1,000 viral particles to contract the virus.

That’s why the closeness of contact, as well as the amount of time spent together, can affect the likelihood of transmission. A brief conversation carries much less risk than sharing a meal with someone or sitting next to another person in an office.

Don’t touch

To get the most benefit from wearing a face mask, Dr. Lampen advised:

  • Wear it over the nose and mouth.
  • Have it tightly fitted on your face.
  • Avoid touching your face or the mask.

“Any time you touch your nose, your eyes or your face with your hands, you are increasing your risk of infection,” Dr. Lampsen said. “If you have to adjust the mask, use hand sanitizer before touching. And afterward, use hand sanitizer again.”

Wait until you have left a public place or high-risk environment before you take off the mask.

Dr. Lampen suggests putting your mask in a paper bag, as health care providers do, until you get home.

The virus likely will die within 24 hours on dry cloth, “But we don’t know that for certain,” Dr. Lampen said.

In general, he advises washing face masks with other laundry.

“Wash it as frequently as you can,” he said. “But I wouldn’t get overly obsessive. Routine laundry should be sufficient to clean it and kill the virus.”

The use of face masks to prevent disease transmission is common in other places around the world. For Americans, the change in routine can feel awkward, Dr. Lampen acknowledged.

And for some people, a mask serves as an uncomfortable reminder of the pandemic.

“I think there may be some magical thinking involved—the thought that, ‘If I ignore wearing a mask, I can pretend there is not a risk,’” he said.

But with the risk of disease transmission involved in face-face interactions, face masks add a layer of protection for individuals and the community.

“It’s another piece of the strategy,” Dr. Lampen said. “We just need to do enough to reduce transmission levels to keep the epidemic from growing. I think this can help.”