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  • As coronavirus spreads through China, drugstores are selling out of surgical masks.

  • Take a look through the news stories and you'll see photos of concerned citizens with their faces covered.

  • But is covering your mouth enough to prevent this life-threatening illness?

  • And if not, what's really the best way to stay healthy?

  • We spoke with an expert to better understand this outbreak.

  • So coronaviruses are a large family of viruses that are responsible for about 25 % of cases of the common cold.

  • Before this latest outbreak, there were six coronaviruses that were known to infect humans.

  • And four of them were just kind of common cold viruses that occasionally could cause pneumonia or severe disease.

  • Coronavirus is an umbrella term that refers to a family of upper-respiratory diseases, including the common cold, MERS and SARS.

  • The virus can present in several ways.

  • Sometimes as a mild illness and sometimes as a life-threatening disease.

  • The current strain in China is highly contagious, hundreds of people have been infected, and several have died.

  • On January 21, it was confirmed that this strain of coronavirus has made its way to the U.S.

  • Soft surgical masks, like the one shown here, are designed to prevent the wearer from spreading their germs to others.

  • But they won't prevent inhalation of airborne germs.

  • Their loose sides reduce their effectiveness as a barrier against disease.

  • To block out the greatest number of airborne germs, you'd need an N95 respirator mask.

  • This mask is what a surgeon would wear around a patient with a highly infectious disease, like tuberculosis.

  • These masks aren't a foolproof solution for the public either.

  • Surgeons get their masks fitted and generally only wear them for a short period of time.

  • Just buying a mask from the drugstore wouldn't give you the same snug fit around the mouth that keeps those germs from getting in.

  • Furthermore, respirator masks actually filter air, which makes them a great barrier against disease.

  • But according to Dr. Amesh Adalja, they restrict oxygen flow too much to be worn all day.

  • A study conducted by the University of New South Wales found that when worn correctly, these masks have an 80% efficacy rate of protecting the wearer against a proven viral infection.

  • This study focused on the spread of influenza, but Dr. Adalja says that the two diseases spread in comparable ways.

  • Coronaviruses spread through the respiratory route, so that's through coughs and sneezes and little droplets to come out of your mouth.

  • And that's pretty much very similar to the influenza.

  • They do spread very readily, and that's the concern when you have one that can cause severe illness.

  • Unfortunately there's a catch.

  • The same study found that mask-usage compliance, or the portion of people using the masks effectively was only 50%.

  • With the noncompliant users incorporated, there was no difference in infection rate between the mask wearers and the control group.

  • So what's the best way to keep yourself safe?

  • Dr. Adalja's advice is simple.

  • So the best thing you can really do is to practice good hygiene, wash your hands, stay away from sick people if you can.

  • If you're in those parts of China where cases have occurred, you want to stay away from the live animal markets which may have been part of the origin of this new virus.

  • But there isn't anything specific you can do other than a lot of common sense and good hygiene.

  • If you do choose to wear a mask, try to follow the rules:

  • Don't remove the mask frequently, touch your face under the mask or reuse it.

  • Doing so will greatly diminish its benefits.

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As coronavirus spreads through China, drugstores are selling out of surgical masks.

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