Face mask fact or fiction? A doctor answers

Monalisa M. Tailor, M.D., responds to some common assumptions about face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic.

With so many opinions about face masks and the coronavirus, it can get confusing trying to determine what’s fact and what’s myth.

Monalisa M. Tailor, M.D., internal medicine physician with Norton Community Medical Associates – Barret, fielded some common questions about face masks recently to set the record straight.

Does wearing a cloth face mask make a difference?

Dr. Tailor: Wearing a cloth mask can make a difference in terms of how many respiratory droplets are spread in the environment. Thinking about the coronavirus, we find that it likes to hang out in our nasal passages and in our oral pharynx — in the back of our throat. If we are speaking, laughing, sneezing, coughing, we are very likely to help spread droplets that contain this virus if we are infected with it. Wearing a mask that covers our nose and our mouth helps prevent that spread to other people.

They’ve done some studies that show the mask helps reduce the spread of germs to other folks around us.

RELATED: What has COVID-19 taught us about ‘getting sick’?

Can my face mask just cover my mouth?

Dr. Tailor: Wearing a mask under your nose still causes respiratory droplets of this virus to become airborne. This virus likes our nasal passages and can spread if we are sneezing or coughing. A mask is effective if we are covering both our nose and our mouth. So that way it helps reduce the spread of those germs and the virus droplets.

If I’m not sick, do I still need to wear a face mask?

Dr. Tailor: Let’s say we’re out in a public area like the grocery store, and thankfully we’re not sick, but this person who is also in produce with us may be sick and not realize it. If they’re not wearing a mask and I’m not wearing a mask, that’s going to increase my likelihood of getting an infection or getting sick, particularly with the coronavirus. Wearing a mask, even when you are not sick or feeling symptoms of COVID-19, helps you prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

If I wear a face mask, do I have to practice social distancing?

Dr. Tailor: It is still important to physically distance if we’re in a public space, because wearing a mask does help reduce the spread of germs. But the other thing that we have found is that the physical distancing combined with the masks helps reduce the spread particularly of the coronavirus. If we are wearing a mask and we’re in a public space, the physical distancing is going to help reduce the risk of infections for everyone around us, and that is one of those things that can help us be a good neighbor and help prevent spread of this virus to others.

Does a face shield work just as well as a mask?

Dr. Tailor: It helps, but not as much as a mask does. One thing that I’ve found from wearing a face shield at work as well with my mask is that droplets can still go under and be spread. A mask coupled with a face shield is going to help you prevent the spread of the virus. A face shield just by itself is not going to be enough.

How often should I wash a face mask?

Dr. Tailor: If you’ve been out for an extended period of time during the day, I would wash it when I get home. If you’ve only gone out for maybe like a couple hours, maybe it’s OK to wash it every two or three days. I have a couple of different masks so I can have one in the wash and one on hand with me in the car if I’m going to be out in public.

Washing by hand with some water and some laundry detergent or bleach works. You could also just throw it in the wash.

If I inhale my own carbon dioxide, won’t that make me sick?

Dr. Tailor: That is not the case. If that was true, then our surgeons would probably pass out in the process of operating on us. Surgeons on a typical day are usually wearing a mask for almost 12 to 14 hours.

Wearing a mask is not going to cause you carbon dioxide retention or anything of that sort. A mask is still going to help you get air out and air in. It’s not going to prevent you from doing that. It is going to help prevent you spreading germs and spreading the coronavirus. The particles in CO2 and oxygen are smaller than coronavirus particles and can pass through the mask.

Is it OK to take my mask off to speak?

Dr. Tailor: You can still speak clearly with a mask on. You don’t have to talk louder just because someone has a mask on. Pulling the mask down to speak, especially in close quarters or with an older person who may have trouble hearing isn’t a good idea because of the potential for spread of the virus.

Clear masks would be a great option. Having some way to communicate that would be text-based like if we’re writing things down or if we’re using our phones to share notes, that could be an option.

If you decide to use only a face shield to make communicating easier, please do so at a safe distance.

How important is it for kids to wear a face mask when school starts back?

Dr. Tailor: It’s going to be very important for children who are going back to school in the fall to be wearing some sort of covering for their nose and mouth. It helps protect other children in the class and teachers as well as family at home.

We already know our day cares and our elementary schools, middle schools, high schools have children that are all spending time together, sharing toys, sharing pencils, sharing crayons, talking, coughing and sneezing. And that would be a way that we’re going to be spreading germs, particularly with this virus.

We have seen in the past that schools have had to close because of flu outbreaks. We don’t want our schools to have to close because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

What can parents do to help kids get ready with a face mask before school starts?

Dr. Tailor: I would say one thing would be having a fun mask. I think that’s been one of the fun things that I’ve enjoyed myself about getting these masks is getting something that represents my personality and helps share who I am. If you can find a mask for your child or make a mask for your child that they appreciate or shares their favorite cartoon character or action hero, they’re probably going to be more likely to wear it and show it off. I think that would be helpful.

What are some precautions you can take if you’re traveling by car?

Dr. Tailor: If you’re traveling by car, it’s still very important to be mindful when you are outside of your vehicle and in a public space. If you’re going to be pumping gas, I’ve told my patients feel free to use a disposable glove. If you’re going to be going to the public restroom, wear a facial covering over your nose and mouth. Make sure your hands are clean after you go to the bathroom or pick up any kind of food item or other supplies when you make a road stop, and make sure your hands are clean before you get in the car — wash for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer if soap and water aren’t available. Those kinds of things are going to be very, very important as you are traveling and commuting.

Depending on where you plan to travel, look at the number of cases in that area. Let’s say you were going someplace that’s having a large increase in cases. You may want to change your plans.

How dangerous is it to travel by plane amid the coronavirus pandemic?

Dr. Tailor: Traveling by plane is going to be interesting for a little bit. I know the airlines have made a lot of modifications in terms of the seat availability so you can have physically distanced seats on the plane. Now, the process of actually getting into the airport and getting to your plane, it’s going to be so, so important to be wearing a mask to help prevent exposures to the other travelers around you, airport staff and yourself.

The mask on a flight is going to be so very important. As will keeping your hands clean, trying to avoid touching your face. We’re touching touchscreens at the airport. We’re touching our luggage; we’re touching the bins at the TSA screening. There are so many high-touch points at the airport. Making sure that we have some hand sanitizer on hand so we can keep our hands clean or washing our hands in the airport frequently — that is going to be important to help prevent the spread of infection and disease.

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What about staying safe from the coronavirus in hotels?

Dr. Tailor: I would try to make sure that you have some sort of supplies on hand. Again, if it’s the hand sanitizer, some sort of wipes that you’re keeping with you to make sure that when you get into your room, that you clean the door knob, the phone, remote control, light switches and the bathroom area. Even though the room has been cleaned, I would still take those precautions.

I would be more likely to stay in a hotel that has professional cleaning routines rather than a short-term home rental because there the owner is cleaning it on their own and may not follow industry standards.

How can we be safer from the coronavirus at a beach?

Dr. Tailor: There are going to be certain parts of the beach that are very crowded. I would try to avoid those. If you can physically distance on a beach, that’s going to be helpful. If you have a secluded part of a beach, that might be better. Just because it’s hot outside does not mean that this virus is less potent. It’s still there. It’s still present.

Wearing a mask, if you’re going to be in that kind of space is still going to be very, very important, and I think maintaining that distancing as well is going to be very important. If going to the beach means that you’re going maybe early in the morning or later in the evening when there’s less people there, that may be helpful as well to help prevent the spread of this virus. It’s going to look different this year. If you want to go to a beach or a tropical area, maybe wait if you can. That way you can help protect yourself and your loved ones around you.

What about avoiding the coronavirus in restaurants?

Dr. Tailor: Eating out while on vacation or just grabbing something on the go — a drive-thru helps reduce your interactions with other people. I would wear a mask if you’re going to be interacting with someone at a drive-thru window. And again, try to wipe down those areas with wipes that you have on hand with you. You don’t get the healthiest options through a drive-thru, but I understand. I get it when you’re traveling that way.

If you are going out to a restaurant, try to go for an outdoor option. Also, making sure that they have spaced out the tables because the 6 feet is going to be so important when we’re eating, we’re not wearing masks. The physical distancing that you see in the restaurant, that’s going to be so important as you’re trying to decide on where to eat when traveling.

Some review websites and apps show how well a restaurant is adapting to the coronavirus and what kind of modifications that they’re making. That can help you make better decisions about where to go and where to eat.

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