Surgical masks and coronavirus: Do they help?

Mar 06, 2020
Experts have said most people don't need to wear a surgical mask for protection against the coronavirus in Australia right now. Source: Getty

Australians have been in full protection mode over the past few weeks with the outbreak of the coronavirus causing distress across the globe. And after the government announced the activation of its emergency response plan last week, this fear has only been heightened.

Hoping to avoid catching the virus, which presents flu-like symptoms, Aussies and others around the world have been sporting surgical masks in a bid to stop any harmful bacteria from entering their bodies. But, do the masks actually provide any protection and should we be wearing them at all?

According to experts, it’s not necessary for everyone. So, before you head to the shops to stockpile on masks, take a moment to check whether you really need one, or if they should be left for those who are actually suffering.

The Department of Health recently issued advice which states that surgical masks are only helpful in preventing people who have coronavirus from spreading the disease further, and if you’re well, then it’s not required.

In fact, there’s little evidence to show that widespread use of the masks among healthy people prevents the transmission of the virus.

However, if you’re in self-isolation after returning from mainland China, or have been in contact with someone who has been confirmed to have the virus, then a mask is beneficial. In this case, the department recommends wearing a surgical mask whenever you’re in public areas, if you’re visiting a medical facility, or if you’re experiencing symptoms and are around others. The same advice is given to those who have a suspected or confirmed case of coronavirus.

The country’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy reiterated this message recently, telling the public to go about their business as usual and avoid wearing masks unless they fit into one of the above criteria.

“There is no risk to people walking around the streets, walking in the shopping centres,” he confirmed in a press conference last month. “The only risk is being in contact with people who have come from an area where there’s a high transmission or there’s contact. I’m saying to people in Australia: don’t wear masks. Go about your normal business.”

Murphy also advised purchasing properly graded masks if required, instead of the standard surgical masks that have been bought in mass throughout the country over the past few weeks. He said although the surgical masks provide some protection, it’s not complete, and the graded masks are much more effective as they can prevent small particles from passing through.

Meanwhile, the federal health department also suggested adopting proper hand washing techniques. They said you should wash your hands frequently with soap and water, before and after eating and after going to the toilet, cover your cough and sneeze, dispose of tissues and use alcohol-based hand sanitiser. If you’re unwell, you must also avoid contact with others such as touching, kissing and hugging.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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