Will a surgical mask really protect you against the coronavirus?

Toward the end of January, the CDC confirmed that the novel coronavirus, which is making headlines around the world, has spread between two people in the U.S, which marked the first time direct transmission happened on U.S. shores. But the CDC has also said that the transmission happened between a coronavirus patient and her husband, in a scenario that the CDC had anticipated (via CDC). 

"Given what we've seen in China and other countries with the novel coronavirus, CDC experts have expected some person-to-person spread in the U.S.," says CDC Director Robert Redfield (via CDC). "We understand that this may be concerning, but based on what we know now, we still believe the immediate risk to the American public is low."

Public health experts say masks don't help

Because the community's exposure to the coronavirus is limited, the CDC says the general public doesn't really need to use face masks to protect themselves, at least for now. "The virus is not currently spreading in the general community," the CDC's Nancy Messonnier said on January 30 (via Allure). "While it is cold and flu season, we don't routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness."

Public health experts say masks come with their own problems because they can provide a false sense of security for those who wear them. "When you're in public, the mask is only meant to be a simple barrier," Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care tells Allure. "It will mostly keep you from inhaling large droplets for a short period, and keep you from touching your face, which is another way you inoculate organisms into your body. They're not really helpful after about five minutes since we inhale and exhale humid air, which dampens the mask so it loses its effectiveness. If something lands on the mask when it's moist, it will get absorbed."

Washing your hands is the best way protect yourself from coronavirus

If you are worried about catching the coronavirus — or influenza, a cold, or a stomach bug for that matter — doctors say the best thing you can do is to play it safe and avoid any contact with anyone who might be sick. Most importantly, doctors say you should wash your hands properly, and wash them often. 

"It's surprising how something so simple as handwashing really makes a difference," Maldonado says. "Studies and experience show that when people wash their hands consistently the rates of disease really drop." 

In case you're wondering, the CDC does have tips on how to wash your hands the right way (wet, lather, scrub for at least 20 seconds, rinse, and dry); and advises you to use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not easily available.