This Face Mask Mistake is Worse Than No Mask at All

Michael Martin
·3 min read

Over a year into the coronavirus pandemic, some of us are experiencing "COVID fatigue," and might find it tempting to be a little less vigilant about some of the best practices to prevent infection. Face masks, worn properly—covering the nose and mouth—are a must. But if you've seen more people allowing their masks to slip below their noses, you're not alone. Wearing a mask below your nose is more than incomplete protection against the virus—it may be as bad as not wearing a mask at all. That's because research suggests COVID-19 enters the body through the nose first, because nasal tissue is more susceptible to the virus. Leaving the nose exposed is forgoing protection where you literally need it most. Read on to find out how to best protect yourself, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.

The nose = a COVID superhighway?

"We have been researching this data for less than a year. Still, so far, it suggests that the primary attack of the coronavirus is in the nose, in the nasal epithelium, which is the skinlike layer of cells in charge of expressing odors," Leo Nissola, MD, told us in December. "It seems like the virus assaults support cells and stem cells in the nose." This might be what causes the loss of smell and taste many people experience with COVID.

Last summer, a study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that cells in the nose are more vulnerable to the coronavirus than cells in the throat or lungs. Researchers also found that people emit more of the COVID-19 virus when breathing through their noses than through their mouths.

Since mask-wearing is a two-way street—we wear them to protect ourselves from inhaling the virus and to shield others from virus we may unwittingly be transmitting as we exhale—letting a mask slip below the nose is a double failure.

The good news: Researchers' findings about how the virus enters the body could lead to more treatments. "If the nose is the dominant initial site from which lung infections are seeded, then the widespread use of masks to protect the nasal passages, as well as any therapeutic strategies that reduce virus in the nose, such as nasal irrigation or antiviral nasal sprays, could be beneficial," said Dr. Richard Boucher, co-author of the UNC study.

But in the meantime, keep wearing that mask—the right way.

RELATED: COVID Symptoms Usually Appear in This Order, Study Finds

How to survive the pandemic

As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear a face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.