Coronavirus Health

COVID-19: When do you need to wear a mask?

As the number of COVID-19 cases in India rise, the need of the moment is to ensure we do not encourage mass panic. Confusion over precautionary measures has also led to a global shortage of masks. As people buy disposable surgical masks off the counter, its prices are skyrocketing. Do you even need one?

Wear only if you are sick

Masks are not necessary if you are healthy, the World Health Organisation in its notice has made it clear. “Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing,” it adds. Even though visuals of men and women in airports wearing masks have become common, you would do better avoiding travel, than travelling with a mask on.

“Surgical masks generally should not be worn by any healthy person,” says Chennai-based Dr Vijayalakshmi B, Senior Consultant – Infectious Diseases, Kauvery Hospital. “If you are sick, say you have a cough or cold, then wearing a mask would help prevent droplets from going outside.”

In fact, the better option is to stay indoors when you are sick. “People with any respiratory infection have to be home quarantined,” says Dr Vijayalakshmi. So the question of wearing masks in public only arises until you get checked by a doctor, to make sure you don’t spread any infection in the meantime.

In such cases, surgical masks are okay. “You should also wear masks if you are healthy but taking care of a sick person in your family,” she adds.

Other than this, there is no role of wearing masks in public, she emphasises, and should be left for healthcare providers: doctors, nurses, or even security staff in hospitals. “There is proof that wearing a regular mask in the hospital setting decreases the chance of transmissions,” she says.

The pricier N95 masks are also to be used by those working in close contact with patients.

COVID-19: When do you need to wear a mask?

If you do wear a mask

Know when to change it. If your regular mask feels damp, it is time for another one. An N95 mask is also labelled single use and disposable. Do not leave your masks lying around. Here is the WHO guide to proper wearing and disposal:

Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

Cover your mouth and nose with a mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.

Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

Proper Disposal: “If a person has tested positive for COVID-19, then the mask used must be put into the yellow bin, the waste from which is incinerated. If they haven’t yet tested positive but are suspected cases in home quarantine, their masks must be kept in a sealed plastic box until they can be sent to a hospital for disposal. If they are only wearing a mask as precaution, then they can be disposed as regular dry waste,” says Dr Ashok Agarwal, president, Indian Society of Hospital Waste Management

Watch | Coronavirus: Can masks protect you?

Nothing makes up for bad hygiene

The main reason why people wear masks despite being healthy is to protect themselves from other sick people, who may or may not be wearing them.

However, Dr Vijayalakshmi explains, “You assume that if somebody coughs on you, it should not reach your mucosa. But the point is, a mask is not going to prevent that. People think that by wearing the mask, they will not touch their faces. On the contrary, if you are not used to wearing a mask, you will keep fidgeting with it, which may increase the chance of spreading.”

Moreover, nothing can make up for bad hygiene. The WHO notice states that “masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.”

In a tropical, crowded environment like India, the main mode of spread is physical touch — direct or indirect, which will happen irrespective of you wearing a mask.

“Regular hand washing helps a lot. Every human being needs to have a social responsibility, let people not provoke panic, or hoard masks. Use the helplines, and see your doctors,” she signs off.

A shortage of masks will not only lead to them becoming more expensive, but also introduce substandard masks in the market. This will only make the actual sick people wearing masks less effective in preventing the spread.

When in doubt, call the COVID-19 helpline, 011-23978046

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 12:23:36 PM |

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