Doctor says wearing a face mask can increase your risk of coronavirus infection. Here's why

PHOTO: Reuters

The novel coronavirus has continued its spread across the globe, with the US being one of the most recent countries to be hit by the viral epidemic. Over 70 cases and two deaths have been recorded in the country as of March 2, Reuters reported.

However, medical practitioners there are warning against panic buying and stockpiling of surgical masks and respirators (such as N95 masks or those alien-looking contraptions with nozzles).

According to a Forbes interview with an infection prevention specialist, not only do you not need to wear a surgical or N95 mask if you're not sick, wearing one while you're perfectly healthy can actually increase your risk of infection.

How so? 

Dr Eli Perencevich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa's College of Medicine, said wearing a mask may make a person complacent about their personal hygiene, for one.

"If you don't wash your hands before you take off the mask and after you take off your mask, you could increase your risk," said Dr Perencevich. He also warned about the dangers of being lulled into a "false sense of security".

He maintained that only people who are unwell would need to wear a mask, to prevent the virus from being passed to somebody else.

Dr Perencevich added that surgical masks are intended to keep droplets in, and not keep them out, unlike surgical respirators such as N95 masks. But as mentioned by other medical professionals, N95 masks are not recommended either.

Secondly, wearing a mask can actually increase the risk of infection purely by how it could lead to more facial contact. They would be "touching their face more often", even if absent-mindedly, said Dr Perencevich.

There's no guarantee that they would be wearing their masks correctly either, as respirators are known to still allow a "small amount of leakage".

"No respirator will eliminate exposures entirely," he added.

And because respirators trap the air in (which may be exactly what you want to avoid, in some cases), improper use or not disposing of masks correctly may end up increasing the risk of infection.

Last but not least, Dr Perencevich warned that panic buying and hoarding of masks might deprive healthcare workers of these essential items when they needed them most.

US Surgeon General Jerome Adams echoed this point of view, putting out an impassioned plea on Twitter.

The issue of whether or not to wear face masks during this time has been widely discussed in Singapore.

The official stance, according to the Ministry of Health, is that only persons who are unwell should mask up.

But if you still prefer to err on the side of caution yet don't wish to create more scarcity, there's always the less taxing and more environmentally-friendly option of making your own face mask. 

ALSO READ: Here's how to make your own mask with a kitchen paper towel and items found at home

For the latest updates on the coronavirus, visit here.

candicecai@asiaone.com