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Coronavirus: Wearing a mask helps you

Written by Diane Archer

We’ve been told over and over again that we need to wear a mask when we are around others in order to keep us from spreading the novel coronavirus if we have it. We have heard less about how we protect ourselves when we wear a mask. The New York Times reports that some experts now say that wearing a mask is likely to minimize your symptoms if you catch the virus, and it might keep you from catching the virus altogether.

If you wear a mask, you are likely to be blocking others from spreading the virus to you. The degree you block the spread of the virus to you depends upon the mask you wear. Even if the virus is able to get through your mask, many experts believe that you are likely to breathe in a smaller amount of coronavirus particles. As a result, you might experience mild symptoms or no symptoms at all; it will be easier for your immune system to stave off the virus in whole or in part.

Some experts believe that half or more of the larger aerosols bearing the novel coronavirus are blocked when you wear a mask. The N95 mask works best. But, others work as well, to a somewhat lesser degree.

To be clear, experts have not found a direct cause and effect link between wearing a mask and staving off the coronavirus or experiencing milder symptoms. But, observational studies show that people who wear masks tend to have milder symptoms if they catch the virus. Other research suggests that wearing a face shield also protects you from catching the virus from others.

For decades, researchers have believed that the amount of a virus a person contracts affects the degree to which the virus affects the person. In a recent experiment with the flu virus, researchers had people inhale different amounts of the flu virus. They found that people who inhaled more of the virus were more likely to get the flu and show symptoms.

Because the novel coronavirus can be lethal, researchers cannot perform experiments with it on people. Chinese researchers, however, recently tested the theory that masks offer protection for their wearers on hamsters. Healthy hamsters that were put next to hamsters with the coronavirus, but protected by a mask buffer, were far less likely to get the virus than those not protected by a buffer. The hamsters that were protected and contracted the virus had milder symptoms than those that were unprotected.

Here are some other interesting data points: As a general rule about 40 percent of people with the novel coronavirus have no symptoms. Wearing masks might increase the extent to which people exposed to the virus are asymptomatic. Researchers found that in a recent outbreak at a seafood plant where some people were wearing masks, asymptomatic cases rose to 90 percent.

On a March cruise, after everyone received a mask because someone on board had a fever, fewer than 20 percent of people on the ship were symptomatic. But on a February cruise, when virtually no one wore masks, more than 80 percent of people were symptomatic.

Of course, wearing a mask is not as good protection as staying out of public environments and away from other people.

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