There's been a lot of confusion about masks throughout the pandemic—including whether cloth masks offer the wearer any protection. Now, some experts say that masks may benefit the wearer, according to a paper published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
People who wore masks experienced less severe COVID-19 symptoms because they breathe in fewer SARS-CoV-2 (novel coronavirus) particles, according to the paper. Researchers determined this by studying COVID-19 transmission in caged hamsters separated by surgical masks partitions. Animal studies are not always a predictor of how transmission works in people, which is why they looked at various events throughout the pandemic, such as an outbreak in a Tyson plant.
Of course, protection varies depending on the material and fit of the mask, but generally masks seem to block the virus to some degree, Monica Gandhi, M.D., MPH, infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco, explained to NPR.
Dr. Gandhi tells the outlet that wearing a mask may help you get an asymptomatic infection—meaning you don't exhibit signs—or a mild infection. According to Dr. Gandhi, the findings reiterate what scientists already know—the more virus you have in your system, the sicker you will probably be.
This also means there's a chance asymptomatic people pass the coronavirus onto others, since they may not know if they're sick. But if everyone wears a mask, then there's likely to be fewer severe cases, and ultimately, deaths, says Dr. Gandhi.
"And what we want to do by wearing a mask is get down the bad stuff about this virus that it can cause very severe illness," she told NPR. "There was actually a outbreak in a chicken factory, outbreak in a seafood factory in this country. But everyone was masking. And it was 95 percent asymptomatic rate of infection."
Aaron E. Glatt, M.D., chair of medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in Oceanside, New York, agrees that masks are beneficial for the wearer. Dr. Glatt, who was not involved with this study, reiterates that wearing a mask isn't selfless.
"There is evidence to support the idea that you are also being protected when you wear a mask from anyone in close proximity to you who is shedding virus," he tells Men's Health. "This double masking idea protects against spread of viral illness besides COVID-19 – it will protect against flu and the common cold too!"
Without a vaccine, wearing a mask—along with hand washing and physical distancing— remains our best tools in fighting COVID-19.
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