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COVID-19 and face masks

In places where COVID-19 is spreading, wearing a face mask in public helps protect other people from possible infection with COVID-19. Other people who wear masks help protect you from infection. Wearing a face mask may also protect you from infection.

Wearing face masks helps reduce the spray of respiratory droplets from the nose and mouth. Using face masks in public settings helps reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Information

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) makes recommendations about when to wear a mask based on the level of COVID-19 community spread. You can look up the level of community spread in your area on the CDC website.

Here are the CDC mask recommendations for all people age 2 and older based on levels of community spread.

HIGH

  • Wear a well-fitting face mask indoors in public. You should wear a mask whether you are vaccinated or not.
  • People at the greatest risk for severe illness should wear a mask or respirator that provides the highest level of protection (such as an N95 mask).

MEDIUM

  • If you have a weakened immune system or are at high risk for severe illness, talk with your health care provider about taking precautions such as wearing a mask indoors.
  • If you live with or have social contact with someone at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, you may want to self-test before seeing them and wear a mask indoors when you are with them.

LOW

  • Wear a mask based on your personal preference based on your personal level of risk.

Regardless of how low community spread may be, you may choose to wear a mask at any time.

You should wear a mask if you:

  • Have symptoms of COVID-19
  • Have been exposed to someone with COVID-19
  • Have tested positive for COVID-19

Effective January 29, 2021, masks were required on planes, buses, trains, and other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States and in US transportation hubs such as airports and stations. Since then, many local governments have relaxed these requirements. You can find out the requirements for your location by checking the website of the local health department.

How Masks Help Protect People From COVID-19

COVID-19 spreads most readily to people within close contact (about 6 feet or 2 meters). When someone with the illness coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice, respiratory droplets spray into the air. You and others can catch the illness if you breathe in these droplets, or if you touch these droplets and then touch your eye, nose, mouth, or face.

Wearing a face mask over your nose and mouth keeps droplets from spraying out into the air when you are speaking, coughing, or sneezing. Wearing a mask also helps keep you from touching your face.

About Face Masks

When choosing a face mask, follow these recommendations:

  • The most effective mask is the one that fits you comfortably and well that you will wear consistently.
  • The face mask should fit snugly over your nose and mouth, against the sides of your face, and secured under your chin.
  • Look for masks with a nose wire to help prevent gaps and prevent fogging if you wear glasses. Antifogging sprays may also help.
  • While most all masks provide protection, some respirators (N95 and KN95 masks that meet certain standards) provide the best protection if worn properly.
  • If you use cloth masks, they should be made of at least 2 layers of fabric that can be laundered in a washing machine and dryer. For extra protection, you can wear a cloth mask on top of a disposable surgical mask (creating a double mask). If you use a respirator (an N95 or KN95) mask, you should not double mask.
  • If you have a beard, try to use a mask that fits around your beard or trim your beard to help with the fit. You can also use a mask fitter or wear a disposable mask under a cloth mask. Even if you have a beard that is not trimmed, wearing a mask will still help protect you.
  • Make sure you can breathe comfortably through the mask.
  • Do not use masks that have a valve or vent, which can allow virus particles to escape.
  • In cold weather, scarves, ski masks, and balaclavas should be worn over masks. They cannot be used in place of masks, as most have a loose knit material or openings that allow air to pass through.
  • Face shields are not recommended for use in place of face masks at this time.

The CDC provides more detailed information on ways to increase mask protection.

Learn how to properly wear and care for a face mask:

  • Wash your hands before placing the mask on your face so that it covers both your nose and mouth. Adjust the mask so that there are no gaps.
  • Once you have the mask on, do not touch the mask. If you must touch the mask, wash your hands right away or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
  • Keep the mask on the entire time you are in public. Do not slip the mask down on your chin or neck, wear it below your nose or mouth or up on your forehead, wear it only on your nose, or dangle it from one ear. This makes the mask useless.
  • If your mask becomes wet, you should change it. It's helpful to have a spare with you if you are outside in the rain or snow. Store wet cloth masks in a plastic bag until you can launder them.
  • Once you return home, remove the mask by touching only the ties or ear loops. Do not touch the front of the mask or your eyes, nose, mouth, or face. Wash your hands after removing the mask.
  • Do not share masks or touch masks used by other people in your household.

Face masks should not be worn by:

  • Children younger than age 2
  • People with breathing problems
  • Anyone who is unconscious or who is unable to remove the mask on their own without help

For some people, or in some situations, wearing a face mask may be difficult. Examples include:

  • People with intellectual or developmental disabilities
  • Younger children
  • Being in a situation where the mask may get wet, such as at a pool or out in the rain
  • When doing intensive activities, such as running, where a mask makes breathing difficult
  • When wearing a mask may cause a safety hazard or increase the risk of heat-related illness
  • When talking to people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing who rely on lipreading for communication

In these types of situations, staying at least 6 feet away (2 meters) from others is particularly important. Being outside can also help. There may be other ways to adapt as well, for example, some face masks are made with a piece of clear plastic so the wearer's lips can be seen. You can also talk with your health care provider to discuss other ways to adapt to the situation.

Alternative Names

COVID-19 - face coverings; Coronavirus - face masks

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: COVID-19 by county. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/covid-by-county.html. Updated August 11, 2022. Accessed August 15, 2022

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Use and care of masks. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/your-health/effective-masks.html. Updated February 25, 2022. Accessed August 15, 2022.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Types of masks and respirators. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/types-of-masks.html. Updated January 28, 2022. Accessed August 15, 2022.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. COVID-19: Use and care of masks. www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/about-face-coverings.html. Updated February 25, 2022. Accessed August 15, 2022.

Review Date 8/5/2022

Updated by: Frank D. Brodkey, MD, FCCM, Associate Professor, Section of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, WI. Also reviewed by David C. Dugdale, MD, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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