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How face masks might save your life even if you get infected while wearing one

Published Aug 31st, 2020 7:12PM EDT
Coronavirus Transmission
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  • Coronavirus transmission can be reduced with the help of face masks, but the face covers may have another unexpected benefit.
  • The use of face masks could save your life even if you do get infected wearing one.
  • A doctor says that face masks will significantly reduce the initial quantity of the virus that a person might inhale, and thus allow the immune system to mount a better response, and prevent a severe case of COVID-19.
  • Some studies already show that the reduction of the initial viral load can reduce the severity of the illness in animals. Other research reveals that human patients who wore masks during exposure were more likely to develop asymptomatic COVID-19 cases.

A threat like the novel coronavirus had the potential to unite the world against a common enemy, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, we’ve witnessed even more division. There have been many controversies along the way, fueled in part by lunatics looking to sow division, and the use of face masks is perhaps the biggest one.

The device that’s proven to prevent the spread of contaminants inside hospitals works in public settings too. Whether its a regular surgical mask, a professional N95 respirator, a sophisticated mask with nanoparticles or motors, or a hand-made multi-layered face cover, the face mask will block some of the particles that float through the air. But an anti-mask movement swept the western world. Whereas face masks are standard in Asia, some people in America and Europe have been treating them with disdain. Face masks were seen as governmental tools used to suppress freedom. We’ve seen countless clips of people refusing to wear masks for no good reason. And then we saw all the stories of coronavirus deniers and anti-maskers who acknowledged they got infected because they didn’t believe the virus was real, or because they refused to wear masks.

With all that in mind, and considering that COVID-19 is still surging, it’s all the more important to use face masks when in public settings. The mask might help you avoid infection, and it might stop you from spreading the virus to those around you. But your mask might also have an entirely unexpected effect. Even if you get infected, the face mask might still save your life.

You can social distance, wash your hands often, wear a face mask and still catch the virus. There’s no guarantee you’ll be spared. And face masks do filter most of the particles that travel around you, but they might still allow the virus to get through. If that does happens, you’ll probably never know when or how you got infected. But if you’re consistent with your mask-wearing habits, when COVID-19 does arrive, it might be milder.

University of California infectious diseases expert Monica Gandhi wrote an article in The Conversation a few weeks ago where she explains that face masks could block most of the virus in the air that you’d normally breathe in. By reducing the viral load, the face masks might save you from a severe case of COVID-19:

I am an infectious disease doctor and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. As governments and workplaces began to recommend or mandate mask wearing, my colleagues and I noticed an interesting trend. In places where most people wore masks, those who did get infected seemed dramatically less likely to get severely ill compared to places with less mask-wearing.

As the virus enters the human body, the immune system is alerted that a pathogen has broken through and starts mounting a defense. The lower the initial viral load, called viral inoculum or dose, the better the immune system’s chances. The virus begins binding to cells as it enters the human body where it starts replicating. The bigger the initial army is, the harder it is for the immune system to contain the infection. As a result, the COVID-19 evolution might be worse for those patients who inhale a higher viral load than people who wear masks. The risk of developing complications grows as the symptoms intensify, and so does the risk of dying.

That’s not just a theory, as Gandhi detailed article cites various examples that prove the importance of that initial viral dose. Lab experiments have shown that surgical face masks can prevent 80% of viral particles from entering the mouth and nose. Researchers conducted experiments with hamsters that proved the animals that were given air through masks were less likely to be infected by their peers. And if they did get the coronavirus, the masked hamsters developed a milder disease than unmasked ones.

When it comes to humans, face masks could favor asymptomatic infections, and the doctor cites a cruise ship case we’ve looked at before. A COVID-19 outbreak on an Australian cruise ship in mid-March led to 128 out of 217 people getting the virus. But the passengers and crew were face masks after the first case was detected. As a result, 81% of the infected people turned out to be asymptomatic, which was an unusually high percentage.

Gandhi cites similar examples from a seafood processing plant in Oregon and a chicken processing plant in Arkansas where workers wore masks. The ensuing outbreaks resulted in unusually high rates of asymptomatics, at 95%.

Gandhi and her colleagues published a paper in late July in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, where they theorized that exposure to COVID-19 through face masks could lead to waves of asymptomatic illness without “the unacceptable consequences of severe” disease. In turn, this could lead to better herd immunity and eventually slower the spread of the illness. While there’s no way to verify that sort of hypothesis right now, more research on the matter of viral inoculum and COVID-19 prognosis could definitely be helpful.

The concept that a lower initial dose of coronavirus could lead to a mild case of COVID-19 does make sense. And it should be another incentive to wear face masks whenever you’re out in public. Even if you get infected, you might increase your chances in the ensuing fight.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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