Frequently Asked Questions About How to Protect Yourself From COVID-19

Are masks really effective against the coronavirus? When should I wear one? Here's how to protect yourself from COVID-19.

Can children transmit the coronavirus?
Can I reuse my mask?
Can I get the virus from mail or groceries?
Can COVID-19 spread by aerosol?
Do masks really help?
How does COVID-19 spread?
Which masks are effective against COVID-19?
When should I wear a mask?


Can children transmit the coronavirus?

Not only can children spread the coronavirus, it can make them sick, and in some rare cases, very sick. But the bigger issue may be that children, who tend to have fewer symptoms and symptoms that are less severe than adults, can bring the virus into homes and spread it to others.

Several recent studies have shown that children are a "potential source of contagion in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic in spite of milder disease or lack of symptoms." In fact, while children may not get as sick, they may carry more virus than adolescents and adults, increasing the odds that they will spread the disease.

This may be disconcerting, especially for parents and grandparents who care for younger children and are worried about becoming infected or having someone in a multigenerational household infected.

Furthermore, children with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk for severe illness and for a complication called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children or MIS-C. Symptoms of MIS-C include: 

  • Fever lasting more than a couple of days
  • Rash
  • Conjunctivitis (redness of the white part of the eye)
  • Stomachache
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Large, swollen lymph node in the neck
  • Red, cracked lips
  • Tongue that is redder than usual and looks like a strawberry
  • Swollen hands and/or feet
  • Irritability and/or unusual sleepiness or weakness. 

Here are things you can do to protect your child and help keep down spread of the virus, according to the CDC.


Can I reuse my mask?


If you're using a cloth mask, you should wash it after every use, according to the CDC. You should safely remove it (here's how) and then wash your hands after you touch it.

Disposable masks like fitted N95 and surgical masks are designed to be thrown away after use. They are not intended to be cleaned or reused. They can't be easily cleaned and cleaning them may degrade their protectiveness. 

Some experts say that if you handle disposable masks correctly, it's probably okay to reuse. Lucian Davis, an epidemiologist at the Yale School of Public Health who studies respiratory infections, recently told the Today Show that you shouldn't touch the face of the mask (if you do, wash your hands), and you should store it in a simple container like a brown paper bag. Here's what else he had to say.


Can I get the virus from mail or groceries? 


COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets as someone speaks, coughs or sneezes. But these droplets eventually fall, landing on surfaces, raising your risk for contracting COVID-19 if you touch a germ-ridden surface.

Here’s where it gets tricky: The amount of time the virus can linger on different surfaces varies. For instance, there hasn’t been any cases linked to food packaging; yet researchers believe that COVID-19 germs can linger on produce. And studies suggest that COVID germs can remain on copper up to four hours, on cardboard up to 24 hours and on stainless steel and plastic up to 72 hours.  

You can reduce your exposure to this transmission by washing produce, re-plating food from containers and washing your hand and disinfecting countertops when they come into contact with food containers.

Here’s more information on how COVID can spread on surfaces.


Can COVID spread by aerosol? 


The novel coronavirus is primarily spread through larger respiratory droplets, the kind from sneezes, coughs, breathing and talking. Scientists also suspect that the SARS-CoV-2 can be spread through aerosols.

When we breathe, talk, cough or sneeze we create particles that generally disperse over a nearby area -- typically 1 meter or six feet — the bigger globs of mucus, saliva and water falling faster than they can evaporate. It’s these drops that scientists think are likely responsible for most coronavirus transmissions and why public health officials suggest you practice social distancing six feet or more from other people

When researchers talk about aerosol particles, they're typically talking about infectious viral particles that float or drift around in the air. Unfortunately, there is experimental data and emerging studies (like a new study conducted by University of Florida that’s waiting peer review and publication) that suggest the virus is transmittable via aerosol.

Before you panic, the CDC still says that data doesn’t support long-range transmission like with the measles virus. Short-range transmission isn’t easy to distinguish from droplet transmission – but you can lessen your risk by avoiding inadequately ventilated spaces such as bars, salons, restaurants, churches and on public transportation, and wearing a mask when you are in those spaces.  

You’re still far more likely to catch the virus at close quarters with someone who is infected than via aerosol transmission. Continue social distancing, washing your hands regularly and disinfecting commonly used surfaces.


Do masks really help?


The short answer is "yes," but maybe not for all the reasons you think. 

Masks work by capturing large droplets from sneezes, coughs and breathing, preventing those droplets from becoming airborne and infecting others. Depending on the type of mask, they may not provide much protection for the wearer from inhaling viral particles.

There's a lot of history around the use of masks in both medical settings and in public to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. They were first used in medical settings in the late 1800s and were common in most surgeries by the mid 1930s. But, according to the Lancet, it was their use in two early 20th century outbreaks — the Manchurian plague of 1910-11 and the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 — that really brought masks into the public space.   

Despite this history, there are no studies that definitively show wearing a mask will prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus. But there is plenty of evidence that they reduce transmission rates, especially as part of a larger strategy of social distancing.

There are good studies that correlate the use of masks with lower transmission rates — both in public and in more intimate settings like households and small businesses 

Masks may not always protect the wearer, although lab tests have shown that masks are better than no masks at lowering your risk. They do, however, protect others from those who are infected, according to the CDC. COVID-19 has spread widely primarily because many people who catch the disease are asymptomatic and spread it to others without ever knowing they had COVID-19

Here's the CDC's guidance on face masks.


How does COVID spread?


The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks, according to the CDC. The droplets either land in the mouths or noses of people who are close by -- within six feet — or may be inhaled into the lungs.

With other viruses, surface transmission is also possible. Droplets left on objects like remote controls and surfaces like door handles pose a risk, which is why it's important to wash your hands frequently and after coming into contact with public surfaces.

Here's how you should wash your hands. 

If you're worried about transmission from packaging, wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water after handling packaging and clean and disinfect any surfaces that had takeout containers or food packaging on them after you've thrown the packaging away.

The Mayo Clinic has a thorough Q&A on coronavirus spread here.


Which masks are effective against COVID-19?


Masks are effective against COVID-19, but only as part of a wider strategy of social distancing. They come in three basic types: Simple cloth facemasks, surgical masks and N95 respirators.

The most effective mask is an N95 respirator because it’s designed to achieve a very close facial fit and are very efficient at filtrating airborne particles. However, due to shortages and the difficulty of efficiently fitting them, N95 masks are really designed for medical settings.

Likewise, surgical masks are meant for clinical uses but are also efficient at filtering many airborne particles. If worn properly, the masks can help block large droplets, splashes, sprays and splatter that may contain viruses.

Cloth masks are the least efficient of the three types, but studies show when worn properly (over the mouth and nose), they can slow the spread of COVID-19. Like the other two types of masks, they create a barrier between your mouth and nose and the droplets carrying COVID-19.

The CDC recommends you wear a cloth mask in close settings and when you’re out in public, reserving surgical and N95 masks for medical professionals. Cloth masks also have advantages over the other two: They can be tossed in the laundry to be cleaned. 

They also protect others by containing many of the large droplets of people who have the disease when they exhale, cough, sneeze or talk. Because many people experience few or no symptoms of COVID-19, they can easily spread the disease to others. This is why it’s important to wear a mask when you’re out in public and around others.  


When should I wear a mask?


 The CDC recommends everyone over the age of two wear a mask when in public and around people who don’t live in your household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. 

Here's the CDC's full guidance on facemasks