Many people are worried about the global spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, and are wondering – can face masks / surgical masks protect them against the flu? Let’s find out!
Coronavirus = NOT Influenza
First, let’s get this straight. The Wuhan coronavirus is different from the influenza virus that causes yearly outbreaks all over the world.
They may have similar symptoms, but they are two different virus families.
The influenza A viruses that cause seasonal flu pandemics vary from 80 to 120 nanometers in diameter, with the smaller viruses adopting an elliptical shape. The coronavirus, of which the Wuhan coronavirus is just one of seven known to infect humans, has a helical capsid that measures about 120 nanometers in diameter.
Unfortunately, the Wuhan coronavirus is new and has no vaccine. So people are opting to use face masks or surgical / medical masks. But how effective are these masks?
“A proper 3-ply surgical or medical mask, has three layers – each with very specific functions :
- an outer hydrophobic layer, which repels water, blood and body fluids,
- a middle filter layer that is designed to filter bacteria, and
- an inner hydrophilic layer, which absorbs water, sweat and spit
- The masks protect patients from mouth-borne germs and work to prevent inhaling diseases.
That said, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently recommending anyone infected with the novel coronavirus or being tested for it to wear a surgical mask when in public. And one infectious disease physician told The New York Times the masks could block “large respiratory droplets” from entering your body when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These large droplets are largely behind the spread of coronaviruses, the physician said.
A more protective mask, known as an N-95 respirator, may be more effective, said Schaffner. But, he noted, a non-medical professional using this mask is likely not using it correctly, doing little to prevent the spread of illness or inhaling a disease.
“The chance of the average person going into a pharmacy, wearing them correctly and for long periods of time is unlikely,” he said.
As for more preventative measures, Schaffner recommends “abundant hand-washing.”