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How masks can help prevent COVID-19

9-minute read

IMPORTANT: If you have severe difficulty breathing, call triple zero (000) immediately and tell the call handler and the paramedics on arrival about your recent travel history and any close contact with a person with confirmed or probable COVID-19.

Does wearing a mask reduce my risk of COVID-19?

Surgical and cloth masks help stop droplets spreading when people talk, cough and sneeze, which reduces the risk of spreading the virus.

If you have, or suspect you have, COVID-19, you should wear a fitted, surgical mask when you’re near other people.

If you are healthy and not caring for a person with confirmed or probable COVID-19 — or are not in an area of community transmission — you don’t need to wear a face mask. There is little evidence supporting the widespread use of masks by healthy people in areas with no community transmission.

However, if you are in an area of community transmission — a COVID-19 ‘hotspot’ — and leave your home for an essential reason, you may have to wear a fitted mask in public. (Typically, children aged less than 12 or older don’t need to wear masks.)

You may live in an area where you’re encouraged to wear a mask in public, especially if you can’t reliably stay 1.5 metres away from others.

Check the restrictions in your state or territory to see if you are legally required or urged to wear a mask (and see ‘Is it compulsory to wear a mask?’, below).

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Symptom Checker to find out if you need to seek medical help.

How do I wear a mask correctly?

Before and after you put on your mask, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water or use a hand sanitiser containing more than 60% alcohol.

While wearing a mask, you should continue to wash your hands frequently. Avoid touching your face or the mask.

When you go out, carry a paper bag or zip-lock (plastic) bag with you to keep fresh or spare masks clean.

You can take your face mask off when eating or drinking. You should maintain physical distancing of 1.5m and practise good hygiene. If you need to take a mask off for eating or drinking, it’s best if you put on a new face mask. If this isn’t possible, clean your hands before and after touching it.

How to wear a mask — video

Cloth mask

It’s preferable for cloth masks to have 3 layers. A cloth mask should cover your nose and mouth. It should fit securely on your face with either ear loops or mask strings tied into a bow at the back of your head.

You should change a cloth mask as soon as it becomes visibly wet or dirty. After taking your mask off, store it in a plastic bag until you can wash it.

Surgical mask (single use)

Before putting it on, check for tears. If undamaged, position the coloured side of the mask outward. If the mask has a metallic strip, make sure it sits against the bridge of your nose.

Replace a surgical mask with a new one if it becomes soiled or damp. Do not reuse single-use masks.

Mask fastening

Ear loop mask

Hold the mask by both ear loops and place one over each ear.

Tie mask

Hold the mask by the upper strings. Tie the upper strings together near the crown of your head. Tie the lower strings near the nape of your neck.

Dual-elastic band masks

Pull the lower band over your head to the nape of your neck. Pull the upper band over your head to the crown of your head.

If your mask has a metallic strip, pinch and press it to mould to your nose shape. Pull the bottom of the mask over your mouth and chin so it fits securely. Don’t touch your mask or face once you have put it on.

Download this infographic in PDF format to print it

Click to check how to wear a cloth mask safely

Read the embedded text separately

Taking off your mask

You can remove your mask when you are by yourself, in your car or at home.

Wash your hands or use alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Don't touch the front of the mask. Use the ear loops or untie the bow to remove it. If your mask has a pair of ties, undo the bottom one first, then the top.

Cloth mask

Dispose of any filters. Put your mask in the laundry straight away or a plastic bag until you can wash it. Make sure you dispose of the bag.

Surgical mask

Dispose of your surgical mask immediately and responsibly.

Clean your hands after you remove your cloth or surgical mask.

Download this infographic in PDF format to print it

Click to check how to wash a cloth mask

Read the embedded text separately

Is it compulsory to wear a mask?

Your state or territory will decide whether you have to wear a mask and under what conditions.

Not all states necessarily have the same rules and situations change rapidly. Follow the news and check your state or territory government website for the latest updates.

If you're in Victoria, everyone aged 12 years and older must wear a fitted face mask that covers their nose and mouth when out in public. Face shields, bandanas or scarves are not acceptable.

There are exemptions to wearing a face mask in Victoria, including if you:

  • have a certain medical condition
  • are doing exercise that leaves you breathless, such as running
  • can't do your job properly with a face covering on

Children under the age of 2 must not wear masks, since they’re a suffocation and choking risk.

In Queensland, all staff, patients and visitors must wear a single-use surgical mask at hospitals in the Greater Brisbane area: West Moreton Hospital and Health Services (HHS); Metro North HHS; Metro South HHS; and Queensland Children's Hospital.

The New South Wales Government recommends people wear a mask if they can't reliably stay 1.5m from others (unless under the age of 12). You must isolate at home if you experience symptoms and wear a face mask if in the same room as others.

NSW health workers must wear a surgical mask if they are within 1.5m of patients. Patients are also required to wear a mask, where possible.

NSW local health districts have further information about wearing masks in hospital and community health settings — such as urging visitors to wear masks. Check your local health district’s website for more information.

Can my employer make me wear a mask?

Your employer can make you wear a mask at work if they, in consultation with employees, decide it is necessary to minimise the risk of exposure to COVID-19.

There are already strict rules in place for workers in some settings, such as aged-care facilities.

You should also closely monitor any information provided by your state or territory government and ensure the rules are followed in your workplace.

Where can I get masks?

Your healthcare provider will give you a surgical mask to wear when you enter a hospital emergency department or clinic if they suspect that you have COVID-19 (if you don't already have one). The hospital or clinic will also advise you on how to fit and wear masks.

You can purchase resusable and surgical masks from retailers like chemists and hardware stores. You can also make your own cloth mask.

Healthcare providers can get information about acquiring masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) on the Australian Government Department of Health website.

Should I buy masks online?

There is a huge number of masks for sale online, but they vary in quality and some will give you or others almost no protection.

Masks and face coverings need to cover your mouth and nose properly and fit your face securely. You might not know if this is the case if you buy one online without inspecting it.

It is much safer to purchase a cloth or surgical mask from retailers like chemists.

More frequently asked questions (FAQs) about COVID-19

Click on the links below for more questions and answers about the coronavirus (COVID-19).

Information and alerts

Visit the Department of Health's website for the latest alerts on COVID-19 in Australia, or the World Health Organization's website for global updates.

Resources in other languages

COVID-19 resources in other languages are available from the Department of Health, as well as from the ACT, NSW, Qld, SA, Tas, Vic and WA health departments.

Information is also available in Aboriginal languages (NT).

Information for health professionals

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) provides coronavirus (COVID-19) information for GPs.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2020

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