[ABC News] We don't need face masks for coronavirus. But there are other ways to protect ourselves - Health
It's been a big year for face masks - and it's only February.
First, it was bushfire smoke.
Now, Australians have been panic-buying face masks to protect themselves from coronavirus.
Described by the World Health Organisation as 'public enemy number one', the coronavirus outbreak - dubbed COVID-19 - has more than 60,000 confirmed cases, and more than 1,300 people have died.
It's not clear how widespread or deadly the flu-like infection will be, but Australian health officials say there is no need for the general public to wear face masks.
There are, however, a number of ways you can reduce your risk of being infected - and in doing so, improve your odds of staving off other infections, including the flu and common cold.
Wait, why don't I need a face mask?
At this stage, the risk of catching coronavirus in Australia is low.
So far, there has been no human-to-human transmission of the virus (in Australia), with all of the people infected in Australia having recently been in China.
"At the moment, all of the cases we've seen have come from Hubei province or been in contact with people who had confirmed cases from there," Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told RN Breakfast on Wednesday.
This means there is little reason for the general public to wear face masks, given the risk is so low.
"The only time when you would want to take broader community measures was [if] there is evidence of sustained community transmission in Australia," Dr Murphy said.
Surgical masks 'no use' for healthy people
Experts believe those with coronaviruses most often spread the infection via "respiratory droplets" - the little secretions we generate when we sneeze or cough.
Because of this, the virus tends to spread between people who are in close contact.
Surgical masks - the ones you typically see in public - provide some barrier against larger droplets and splashes of fluid being shared by infected people.
This is why people who are sick are encouraged to wear them, and why they are a sensible precaution in place like Wuhan, the disease epicentre.
Surgical face masks, however, are not designed to provide respiratory protection, said Abrar Chughtai, an infectious disease epidemiologist from the University of New South Wales.
"When face masks where designed in the early 19th century, surgeons started using them to prevent the spread of their pathogens into operating fields," Dr Chughtai said.
"The main objective ... was to prevent the spread of infection."
Surgical masks do not provide a seal around the face, and therefore do not filter viral airborne particles.
"Sick people should use face masks. For healthy people ... at the community level, there is no use for face masks," Dr Chughtai said.
It's a different story for health care workers, and the Australian Government has urged them to wear face masks.
"They are in direct and close contact with patients ... so they should use face masks or respirators," Dr Chughtai said.
Respirators, such as the P2 masks recommended for bushfire smoke, are thicker than surgical masks and able to filter 95 per cent of airborne particles.
However, these masks are uncomfortable and difficult to wear for long periods of time, so they are not recommended for general use in countries where transmission is not widespread.
Wash your hands properly
Given there is no vaccine to prevent the latest strain of coronavirus, the best way to prevent infection is to avoid being exposed to the virus.
Instead of worrying about face masks, healthy people should take every precaution they normally would to avoid catching the flu.
As with colds and other seasonal viruses, the most important thing you can do is wash your hands - and wash them often.
Research shows that compared to non-handwashers, those who wash four times a day can have up to 24 per cent fewer sick days due to respiratory infections, and 51 per cent fewer days off due to tummy problems.
Hand washing shouldn't just follow toilet use. You should also wash your hands:
- after you cough or sneeze,
- before you eat and when you prepare food,
- after you handle animals,
- when you care for someone unwell.
Your handwashing technique is also important, a quick splash under the tap won't cut it.
To get properly germ-free hands, you need to wash them for at least 20 seconds with soap, under clean, running water.
When there's no water, a hand sanitiser or gel that contains at least 60 per cent alcohol is your best bet.
Be mindful of what you touch
The most common way seasonal illnesses spread is when our hands pick up bugs from contaminated surfaces. Once the virus is on our hands, it's all too easy for it to be transferred to our mouth, nose or eyes, where it can more readily enter cells and make us sick.
So, avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth, especially if you haven't washed your hands for a while.
If you cough or sneeze, try to cover your mouth and nose with your elbow or a tissue, before throwing the tissue into a closed bin.
It's a good idea to clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
As is the case for colds and flus, avoid close contact with people who are sick. And if you're sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick too.
When going to the GP
If you have been to China and you are experiencing flu-like symptoms, you should immediately phone your GP and explain your symptoms and your travel history.
Do not make an appointment or attend a GP practice or hospital without informing them first, as they will need to make arrangements to protect others before you arrive.
If you have come into contact with someone who might have coronavirus, you can find more detailed advice here.
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