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A masked woman rides a bus.

Why wear a mask?

Masks save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, but not everyone understands why they’re effective.

“I’ve seen so many people who ask why they need to wear a mask,” says Mallory Shillinger, D.O., a Piedmont internal medicine physician.

For masks to be most effective, it’s important that as many people as possible wear them – and that they wear them correctly.

How do masks slow the spread of COVID-19?

Think about past times when you’ve had a cold. You know you’re releasing germs into the air when you cough or sneeze, and it feels gross.

But even when you don’t have symptoms of illness, you’re still releasing droplets into the air. It happens when you cough and sneeze, but also when you talk, sing and yell. It even happens when you’re just breathing.

COVID-19 can be contagious even if you don’t have symptoms, Dr. Shillinger explains, and experts think it spreads mainly via droplets carrying the virus. That means that even if you feel fine, you may be unwittingly infecting others when releasing droplets.

That’s where masks and other face coverings come in. When you wear a mask, Dr. Shillinger says, the cloth on your face makes it harder for droplets to spread.

“You’re preventing the spread of your germs,” she says.

If you’re near someone carrying the virus that causes COVID-19 and they aren’t masked, she adds, “you’re more at risk to get sick.”

So wearing a mask protects others, but it can also protect you by lowering the risk that you’ll inhale someone else’s droplets.

“It’s a two-way street,” Dr. Shillinger points out.

When and how should I wear a mask?

“Masks are to be worn when you can’t safely social-distance,” Dr. Shillinger says. They’re especially important indoors, where the virus may spread easily, and when you’re in close proximity to someone (from outside your household) for 15 minutes or more.

Make sure your mask covers both your nose and mouth. When you’re ready to remove it, she says, grab one of the ear loops and take it off from there.

You should wash your masks every time you wear them, she adds.

How long do I have to wear masks?

Dr. Shillinger points out that the pandemic will not last forever. If you find masks uncomfortable to wear, consider how covering your face benefits your friends, family and community.

“People have to respect others,” Dr. Shillinger says. By wearing a mask, you’re showing the people around you that you care about their health and well-being.

Dr. Shillinger herself is serious about masks: At her wedding this summer, she required her guests to wear them.  

“It’s the golden rule,” she says. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

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