Need Another Reason to Wear a Face Mask? Your Own Protection

Headshot of an asian adult male wearing a mask.

Posted November 24, 2020

At this point in the pandemic, we’ve learned that wearing a mask is the right thing to do because it protects the people around us. When we talk, cough, sneeze or exhale, facial coverings decrease the amount of infectious droplets that enter the air from our mouths and noses.

I wear a mask to protect you. You wear a mask to protect me.

Now, there is growing evidence that masks also provide protection for the wearer. In fact, studies show that some people who were infected with COVID-19 are still alive today because they wore a mask.

So how are masks making a difference? They let significantly fewer viral particles get into your body, making it easier and quicker for your immune system to stamp out COVID-19 before it causes major problems. 

The less virus you get, the less sick you get.

This is a different way of thinking about masks. They aren’t just about protecting others – you can protect yourself. And even if you do get infected while wearing a mask, you may prevent serious illness or even avoid symptoms altogether.

Of course, to be protected you must select an appropriate mask and wear it properly. That includes making sure the mask covers your nose and mouth and fits snugly against the sides of your face without gaps. Keeping your distance from others, avoiding large gatherings (especially indoors) and frequently washing your hands also drastically reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19.

More people wearing masks may mean less serious illness and death from COVID-19. That, in turn, leads to less strain on our hospitals and our health care system overall, saves lives and helps us better control the virus before a vaccine becomes available.

One of the many peculiarities about this virus is the wide range of symptoms an infected person can experience, from none at all to life-threatening illness requiring hospitalization. Recent outbreaks indicate that masks made a big difference in the degree to which those who were infected got sick.

On a cruise ship off the coast of Japan, only 18 percent of the 634 people who tested positive were asymptomatic. However, a whopping 81 percent of 128 people who contracted COVID-19 on an Argentinian ship reported no symptoms. One potential key difference was that everyone on the Argentinian ship was given a mask after the first passenger became sick.

Even more telling, about 95 percent of workers infected at two separate food processing plants in Oregon and Arkansas were asymptomatic. In both cases, employees were required to wear face masks.

Let’s face it: masks aren’t always comfortable or convenient. But we now know that wearing a mask is good protection for you as well as for those around you. These are two very good reasons to wear a face mask when in public spaces, when you are around people who don't live in your household and when you can't stay 6 feet away from others.

By Wouter Rietsema, MD, Vice President, Population Health and Information Services, UVM Health Network – Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital.