If we want to continue to flatten the COVID-19 curve, we need to take as many precautions as we can. While it may sound like a broken record, measures such as physical distancing, limiting our social circles to as few people as possible, washing our hands regularly (or using hand sanitizer when soap and water isn’t readily available), as well as staying home when sick, are all important steps to take in keeping not only ourselves safe, but keeping those around us safe as well. In addition to these measures, face masks are also something to consider wearing, and is, in fact, something that our health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and health minister, Adrian Dix, encourage all British Columbians to do – particularly in instances where we are unable to keep at least 2 metres apart from others (for example, while grocery shopping or when riding on transit.) All of that being said, many questions have been raised about face masks by readers in recent months, and you’ll find answers to some of the most commonly asked questions below.

“I see people wearing different types of masks. What is the difference, exactly?”
There are different types of masks: Non-medical grade masks and medical grade masks.

A non-medical grade mask can consist of a surgical/procedure mask, or other cloth face covering, such as a hand-made mask made from cotton or linen. If you are going to wear a non-medical grade mask, it should completely cover the nose and mouth without any gapes showing, fit securely to the head using ties or elastic ear loops, and feel comfortable (by not requiring frequent adjusting as well as allowing for easy breathing.) In addition, non-medical grade masks should be thrown out (if using a surgical/procedure mask) or washed (if using a cloth/hand-made mask) after each use.

When it comes to medical grade masks (such as N95 respirator masks), there are quite a few differences. For example, N95 masks are not loose fitting compared to non-medical grade masks. They are much more tight fitting, and significantly reduce the wearer’s exposure to particles. If a medical-grade mask becomes damaged or deformed, it should be thrown away. However, in some cases they can be reused if they are properly decontaminated.

You can learn more about the difference between non-medical and medical-grade masks here.

“How will a face mask protect me?”
Wearing a face mask isn’t necessarily about protecting yourself; it’s more about protecting those around you. Even if you are asymptomatic, you should still wear a mask. Why? Because you could still be a carrier of COVID-19 – thus, you could easily pass the virus on to others, who could ultimately develop symptoms that could potentially become severe or even life-threatening, even if you yourself didn’t develop any symptoms at all.

Without wearing a mask, droplets produced by coughing, sneezing, or even talking can travel as far as 12 feet, as shown in a recent visualization (below); while with a mask, the distance that droplets travel is reduced significantly.

“Someone I am in frequent and close contact with doesn’t wear a mask. How can I convince them to wear one?”
Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to tell others what to do, and some people will just downright refuse to wear a mask. If the person whom you are in close contact with happens to be a friend or a family member, then it may be easier to convince them to wear a mask. However, if it’s someone you’re not particularly close with, such as a co-worker, then it may prove to be a bit more difficult. That being said, if you’re someone who is at higher risk of developing COVID-19 – for example, if you have an underlying medical condition such as COPD, asthma, or a compromised immune system (all of which put you at an increased risk for COVID-19, including other risk factors), then you can try to explain to them the reasons why it’s important to you that they wear a mask. If, after doing so, they still refuse to wear a mask, you could ultimately bring your concerns to your supervisor (or HR department) if you feel comfortable enough.

“I’m all for masks, but I find wearing them uncomfortable. What can I do to make them more comfortable?”
Unless you are a healthcare worker or work in another industry where mask-wearing is common, then wearing face masks is probably something most people weren’t used to in the first place – so, naturally, they can take some getting used to.

One tip I recommend for making mask-wearing easier is, rather than just wearing a face mask when you’re out in public, is to also practice wearing them at home. For example, when you’re watching tv, house cleaning, or even when making dinner. The more you wear a mask, the quicker you will become used to it. Another suggestion is that if the face mask you’re using just doesn’t feel comfortable enough, consider the different options of face masks that are available to you – from surgical masks to hand-made fabric masks. Just make sure that whatever type of mask you choose follows the CDC guidelines.

“Why doesn’t everyone wear a face mask?”
While there are few reasons why someone shouldn’t be wearing a face mask, it’s also important to be mindful of the fact that there are also certain reasons as to why someone might not be able to wear a mask. For example, someone may not be able to wear a face mask due to disability and could have difficulty putting on or taking off a mask.

“Will a face mask restrict my breathing?”
One of the biggest worries people have when it comes to face masks – particularly those who find them uncomfortable – is whether or not they can restrict your breathing and reduce oxygen – and the answer to that is no. If the mask that you’re wearing is made properly, then the likelihood of it causing any sort of significant issues with your breathing is low. If you do happen to find yourself having trouble breathing when wearing a mask, consider the fact that they can, as mentioned, be hard to get used to initially and may even feel claustrophobic to some, and you could ultimately be having a panic attack.