As cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) are on the rise in Florida, and some cities have put measures in place mandating the use of masks in public places, concerns – and in some cases misinformation – have arisen about the effectiveness of masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children age 2 and older wear a mask in public to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Pediatric infectious diseases specialist Matthew Thomas, M.D., debunks some of the more recent myths about masks, and talks about why they are safe to use and an important part of curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the community. He also offers some tips for families on how to help children adjust to wearing a mask.
MYTH: Masks don’t actually do anything to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Masks decrease the risk of spreading viruses, like COVID-19, by decreasing the respiratory droplets spread through your nose or mouth. How well masking helps with COVID-19 spread is still being researched; however, we do have good data from other viruses that masking can reduce spread and thus reduce new infections. When you speak, sneeze, cough or sing, small particles of fluid, called respiratory droplets, are released from your mouth or nose. Some of these droplets are large enough to be seen, but many of them are too small to be seen. COVID-19 is spread through these droplets.
If you wear a mask, you decrease the number of droplets that spread from your nose and mouth out into the environment around you. If you happen to be sick or carrying the virus, wearing a mask decreases the amount of virus around you as well. If less virus is in the environment, the chance of getting sick from COVID-19 decreases. As more people wear masks and face coverings, the chance of coming across the virus will decrease. A mask is only effective if it is worn properly by covering both the mouth and the nose.
MYTH: Wearing a cloth mask will make me sick because of carbon dioxide poisoning.
When you exhale, carbon dioxide leaves your lungs and exits the body through your nose or mouth. Carbon dioxide is a gas made up of small molecules. These molecules are so small that they can pass through many materials, including the materials used to make masks. If you are using a medical-grade or cloth mask, carbon dioxide will pass through safely. It will not accumulate inside the mask or make you sick. Remember that wearing a mask may be a new experience for you, but medical providers have been wearing masks safely for decades to protect themselves while helping others.
MYTH: Wearing a cloth mask will make me sick because mold will build up in it.
Cloth masks can be used safely more than once if you wash them each day. Proper laundering of cloth masks removes any viruses, bacteria or respiratory secretions that may build up on the mask. You should wash your cloth mask with soap and water after you are done using it for the day. It should be completely dry before you use it again. Clean, dry masks will not develop mold or make you sick.
MYTH: Only people who are already sick should wear a mask. If you’re healthy, you don’t need one.
Some people with COVID-19, or other viruses, will be visibly sick. However, many people with COVID-19 may be asymptomatic, which means they feel perfectly healthy. Asymptomatic patients feel well and appear fine to others. They can still spread a virus to others and therefore can make other people sick. While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, both healthy and sick people should wear masks or face coverings while around others to try to prevent spread of the virus.
MYTH: If I wear a mask, I don’t need to practice physical distancing.
Masks are a simple and easy defense against spreading COVID-19; however, they are not perfect. Think of masks as one tool in your toolbox to protect you and your family from COVID-19 – practicing physical distancing is another. Respiratory droplets can occasionally make it from your nose or mouth, through the mask, and out into the environment. Droplets can also pass around the mask if it does not fit well. To protect yourself from these droplets, 6 feet of physical distancing is required between yourself and other people, even if masks are worn.
MYTH: It’s not worth trying to get my children to wear masks because they won’t wear them consistently.
Mask-wearing can be difficult for young children or for those with intellectual disabilities, mental health conditions or sensory sensitivities. When at all possible, children who cannot tolerate a mask should avoid being around others. For children less than 2 years old, masks are generally not recommended because the child is unlikely to keep the mask in place. For older children, you should try to have the child wear a mask whenever they are around other people.
If your child can only tolerate the mask for a short period, then have your child wear the mask when he or she is most at risk of being around others or when it is difficult to maintain a distance of 6 feet from other people, such as while in line at school or at a drop-off/pick-up for carpools. Whether they are able to wear a mask or not, you should try to maintain 6 feet of physical distancing between the child and other people at all times.
Children learn by mimicking the actions of others. One of the most important ways to get a child to wear a mask is for parents and other caretakers to wear a mask. It’s important to wear your mask properly — the mask should cover both the nose and the mouth.
Make the masks fun! If you are able to make cloth masks yourself or if you know someone who can do it for you, have your children help select the fabric. If you are purchasing masks, have them help pick out the mask they want to wear.