Can wearing a medical face mask protect you against the new coronavirus? It's a question many people, including pet owners who are putting canine face masks on their dogs, are asking.
If it's a regular surgical face mask, the answer is "no," Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, told Live Science.
A more specialized mask, known as an N95 respirator, can protect against the new coronavirus, also called 2019-nCoV. The respirator is thicker than a surgical mask, but Schaffner doesn't recommend it for public use, at least not at this point.
That's because, in part, it's challenging to put these masks on and wear them for long periods of time, he said.
Specialists receive retraining annually on how to properly fit these respirators around the nose, cheeks and chin, ensuring that wearers don't breathe around the edges of the respirator. "When you do that, it turns out that the work of breathing, since you're going through a very thick material, is harder. You have to work to breathe in and out. It's a bit claustrophobic. It can get moist and hot in there," Schaffner said.
"I know that I can wear them when I need to for about a half-hour," he added. "But then I have to go out of the isolation room, take it off and take some deep breaths, kind of cool off, before I can go back in."
While it is possible to buy the N95 respirator online, Schaffner advised against it. For one thing, there are just seven cases of coronavirus in the United States at this point.
Meanwhile, influenza will infect, hospitalize and even kill thousands upon thousands of Americans this year, but most people aren't thinking of taking the same precautions for that illness, he said. Furthermore, while there is no shortage of the respirators now, there could be if too many people unnecessarily buy one, Schaffner said.
The thinner surgical mask is intended for surgeons, because these products do a good job of keeping pathogens from the doctor's nose and mouth from entering the surgical field, Schaffner said.
In some Asian countries, such as Japan and China, it's not uncommon to see people wearing surgical masks in public to protect against pathogens and pollution. But those masks don't help much in the context of a virus, Schaffner said. "They're not designed to keep out viral particles, and they're not nearly as tightly fitted around your nose and cheeks," as an N95 respirator, he said.
"Could they be of some use? Yes, but the effect is likely to be modest," Schaffner said.
He noted that some people wear surgical masks because they are sick with a cold or the flu and they don't want to get other people sick. But if you're sick, it's best just not to go to public areas. "That's the time to stay home," Schaffner said.
A better way to avoid getting the coronavirus is to, first and foremost, postpone any travel to China, where the virus originated and has infected more than 11,000 people, according to The Washington Post. You can also thoroughly wash your hands; avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; avoid close contact with people who are sick; and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
As for pet owners putting face masks on their dogs, there's no evidence that dogs can even catch the coronavirus, so "you don't need to do that," Schaffner said.