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Your Face Mask Protects You in More Ways Than One, Study Finds

Masks may reduce viral load of the virus, reducing your coronavirus risk.
Portrait of a young Caucasian girl wearing a white medical mask on a background of nature and cityscape, coronavirus, air pollution concept

Health experts have been recommending wearing protective face coverings for many months, primarily because they can prevent the spread of COVID-19 from you to others. However, there has been a little confusion as to the level of protection—if any—that individuals wearing them have against the highly infectious and potentially deadly virus. However, new research is finding that masks do in fact protect you from coronavirus, and they do so by reducing the viral load, which can lessen the severity of symptoms or keep the virus away altogether. 

May Result in A Milder Form of the Virus

Different kinds of masks "block virus to a different degree, but they all block the virus from getting in," said Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco told the New York Times. She added that if any virus particles get through, it would result in a milder form of the virus. This is the argument of a new paper Dr. Gandhi and her colleagues wrote, set to be published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine

In the paper, the researchers used animal experiments as well as observation during the pandemic to come to the conclusion that face coverings reduce the viral load of the virus, giving their immune systems more of an opportunity to fight off infection. 

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Earlier this year, Chinese researchers also conducted a study attempting to determine how viral load can impact coronavirus infection. They used hamsters as their subject, separating them in cages, some protected by surgical mask buffers. While many of the protected hamsters didn't get sick, some of the less fortunate one did as a result of "maskless" neighbors. 

The NYT also points out that human data supports the relationship between viral load and level of infection. Data shows that an estimated 40 percent of infected individuals are asymptomatic. When people wear masks, these asymptomatic cases surge. This leads researchers to believe that while someone can still get infected when wearing a mask, it is possibly with a milder form of the disease.

So Mask Up

Dr. Gandhi also points to evidence in the form of cruise ship infections. In February, before mask-wearing was the norm, more than 80 percent of those infected aboard Japan's Diamond Princess were infected with virus and showing symptoms. However, when a ship left Argentina the next month, with masks being issued when a passenger came down with a fever, the level of symptomatic cases was lower than 20 percent.

Gandhi also introduces the idea that in addition to self-protection and protecting the health of others, there is also a herd immunity aspect to mask wearing. If you wear a mask and do in fact receive a lower viral load leading to an asymptomatic infection, we will achieve herd immunity faster — and without needless hospitalizations and deaths. 

"Exposing society to SARS-CoV-2 without the unacceptable consequences of severe illness with public masking could lead to greater community-level immunity and slower spread as we await a vaccine. This theory of viral inoculum and mild or fasymptomatic disease with SARS-CoV-2 in light of population-level masking shows the benefits of mask-wearing for the individual (as well as others) as a pillar of COVID-19 pandemic control," she explains in the study. 

So mask up—for yourself, others, and the good of mankind! And get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 37 Places You're Most Likely to Catch Coronavirus.

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