Health

What A Doctor Thinks About Those Nose-Only COVID Masks

Come again?

A woman wears a full COVID mask. A mask covering both nose and mouth is recommended for COVID protection.
Abhishek Thakur / EyeEm/EyeEm/Getty Images

There’s a wide variety of COVID masks out on the market now — cotton, triple-layered, hand-sewn by your grandmother with adorable prints on the front. But at the end of March, a new kind of COVID mask attracted some controversy. The nose-only COVID mask, which researchers from National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico say is designed to be worn while eating or drinking, provides covering over your nostrils while leaving your mouth free.

The rationale behind the nasal mask is that without it, people have to remove their masks entirely to eat in public around others, risking the spread of COVID droplets via breathing or sneezing. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that COVID can spread both through heavier droplets and through aerosol particles, which are lighter and can travel further. The nose mask represents a compromise, where air from the nose is still blocked by mask fabric, while the mouth is uncovered for chewing.

Dr. William Greenough III M.D., professor emeritus of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, tells Bustle that to be effective, a COVID mask should cover both your nose and your mouth, as the virus can spread from either place — even if your mouth is full of sandwich or delicious cake. “This is all intuitive, common sense as to what spreads droplets, when you're eating and talking or coughing,” he says.

A study released by the National Institutes Of Health on Mar. 25 found that COVID can infect the cells of the mouth and saliva. That means spit and other cells shed by mouths can spread COVID even more effectively than previously thought. So having your nostrils covered while your mouth is free likely isn’t going to help protect people from COVID all that much. If you’re going to remove any part of a protective mask to eat, you should be fully vaccinated, at least six feet away from people who might catch COVID from you, or isolated with your COVID bubble.

The nose mask may be tempting for people pre-vaccination, but Dr. Greenough advises against it. “Here in the U.S. we’re escalating towards another peak, which is likely to be coming, showing up as increased cases and particularly deaths about six weeks from now,” he says. Keeping on two-layer masks, and doubling up on them when you can, is still advised.

Even if you’re fully vaccinated, Dr. Greenough recommends keeping the mask on for the time being. The U.S. hasn’t reached the point where 70 to 80% of the population are immunized against COVID, which will mark the point where herd immunity will make it harder for the virus to circulate. Until that point, many people are still vulnerable. “I would advocate, even if you're immunized with two shots, that you use the mask as a good example to others, even if they’re desperate to get together again,” he says. It could be really helpful for preventing future peaks.

Expert:

Dr. William Greenough III M.D.

Studies cited:

Huang, N., Pérez, P., Kato, T. et al. (2021) SARS-CoV-2 infection of the oral cavity and saliva. Nature Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-021-01296-8