Wearing masks reduces chances of serious illness and death by more than 85%

As more and more states promote face masks as a way to control the spread of COVID-19, the top-line message has been: wear a mask to protect others. While it’s true that most face masks  are more effective in preventing you from launching droplets into the air than breathing in already dispersed droplets – that doesn’t mean masks offer no protection to the wearer.

It’s likely that face masks, by blocking even some of the virus-carrying droplets you inhale, can reduce your risk of falling seriously ill from COVID-19, according to Monica Gandhi, MD, an infectious disease specialist at UC San Francisco.

“The more virus you get into your body, the more sick you are likely to get,” she said.

In the latest wave of infections in the U.S., the wider use of masks may be one factor for the lower death rates – along with more testing, younger patients and better treatments – said Gandhi. A greater proportion of these new cases have been mild or asymptomatic, though more data is needed to see if they track geographically with higher rates of mask-wearing.

Worldwide, epidemiological patterns seem to provide a clue. In countries where mask wearing was already commonplace, such as Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, and Singapore, and in countries where mask wearing was quickly embraced, such as the Czech Republic, rates of severe illness and death have remained comparatively low.

These epidemiological observations are among the evidence that Gandhi and colleagues cite in a paper in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, in which they propose that masks can lead to milder or asymptomatic infections by cutting down on the dose of virus people take in.

“Masks can prevent many infections altogether, as was seen in health care workers when we moved to universal masking. We’re also saying that masks, which filter out a majority of viral particles, can lead to a less severe infection if you do get one,” said Gandhi. “If you get infected, but have no symptoms – that’s the best way you can ever get a virus.”


Not a New Idea

The idea that viral dose, also known as viral inoculum, determines the degree of illness is not new, said Gandhi. Descriptions of a dose-mortality curve – how much of a virus is needed to cause death in an animal – were first published in 1938. And after all, the earliest vaccines, which were documented in 16th century China, involved exposing someone to a small amount of smallpox virus to induce mild illness and subsequent immunity.

A small number viral particles is more likely to be quelled by the immune system before they can proliferate, said Gandhi.

Researchers have studied dose-dependency experimentally with other viral infections, like the flu. In a study with healthy volunteers, those who received a higher dose of the influenza A virus developed more severe symptoms.

Because the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is potentially lethal, experiments on masking and disease severity have been necessarily limited to animals. In a hamster study, a surgical mask partition between the cages of infected and uninfected hamsters significantly cut COVID-19 transmission. Fewer hamsters caught the virus and those that did showed milder symptoms.

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