This One Major Fact We Thought About Masks May Not Be True, Doctors Say

Experts say you're not only protecting others when you wear a mask.

At this point we all know that wearing a mask is a highly recommended—in some places, mandatory—method of curbing the spread of coronavirus. Their use has been endorsed by top health experts and their effectiveness has been proven by research—specifically when it comes to their ability to prevent an infected person from spreading the virus. Everyone is advised to wear one because many COVID-19 patients are asymptomatic and may not know they are sick. However, according to new research, some experts say there is evidence that masks do more than help prevent infected individuals from spreading coronavirus to others—they may actually lower your risk of contracting a severe case of COVID-19.

In a new research paper published in Journal of General Internal Medicine, doctors suggest that wearing a mask limits the number of coronavirus particles that are able to enter your nose or mouth when you are in close contact with an infected individual. In turn, the doctors explain, you are more likely to experience a more mild—likely asymptomatic—case of COVID-19 should you become infected. In other words, less particles leads to less severe symptoms. "Universal masking reduces the 'inoculum' or dose of the virus for the mask-wearer, leading to more mild and asymptomatic infection manifestations," Monica Gandhi, MD, MPH, professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco and study co-author, wrote in the paper.

four friends wearing face masks walking down a city street

It should be noted that evidence supporting the theory of Gandhi and her colleagues is limited to that provided from animal experiments, along with expert observations of certain events over the course of the pandemic. That being the case, some experts unaffiliated with the research paper say, though a logical position to take, it's too soon to say definitively whether masks can reduce a person's risk of severe COVID-19 symptoms.

Speaking to The New York Times, Tsion Firew, MD, an emergency physician at Columbia University, said that the link between wearing a mask and milder symptoms remains unproven, but that Gandhi and the team's paper is in line with what she and other experts believe to be true about wearing masks. "It's not just a selfless act," Firew told the Times.

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If masks do indeed help lower severe cases of COVID-19, this may lead to a positive benefit from having more mild or asymptomatic cases among the population. "Asymptomatic infections may be harmful for spread but could actually be beneficial if they lead to higher rates of exposure," the paper says. "Exposing society to SARS-CoV-2 without the unacceptable consequences of severe illness with public masking could lead to greater community-level immunity and slower spread as we await a vaccine." And for more projections about what's to come, check out Dr. Fauci Just Made This Major COVID-19 Prediction for the Fall.

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