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Face mask guidance for over-60s has changed, so here’s what you need to know

Face mask guidance for over-60s has changed - WHO advises medical grade masks
(Image credit: Getty)

The coronavirus doesn’t respect age, so none of us are immune to the virus simply because we have a specific year written on our birth certificate. That said, clinical data now tells us that certain groups are more vulnerable than others, leading the World Health Organization to recommend medical face masks for any persons aged 60 and over. 

According to a September update from the CDC, when talking purely in terms of age, ‘the greatest risk for severe illness from COVID-19 is among those aged 85 or older.’ And how, ‘In general, your risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19 increases as you get older. In fact, 8 out of 10 COVID-19-related deaths reported in the United States have been among adults aged 65 years and older.’

What is a medical mask?

(Image credit: Getty)

Medical masks (surgical masks) are made from a minimum of three layers of synthetic non-woven materials, and designed with filtration layers in the middle. Medical masks are available in different levels of thickness, with two levels of filtration, and different levels of fluid-resistance. They reduce the transmission of droplets formed when breathing and coughing from you to those around you. They also help prevent transmission of the virus to you.

WHO also recommends medical masks to any person who has an underlying medical condition. So if you are aged 60 and over, a BMI of 30+, or a health issue that puts you at greater risk, the advice is to:

  • Wear a medical face mask in areas where virus transmission is active
  • Wear a medical mask in any outdoor or indoor situation where you cannot properly social distance
  • Regularly wash or sanitize (when outdoors) your hands to help slow the spread
  • Don’t visit with anyone who is displaying coronavirus symptoms

When talking about the medical mask recommendations, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “In areas with community transmission, we advise that people aged 60 years or over, or those with underlying conditions, should wear a medical mask in situations where physical distancing is not possible.”

A CDC graph showing how the coronavirus affects different age groups

(Image credit: CDC)

Face masks for the general public
When it comes to face mask use for the general public, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO Technical Lead COVID-19 advises: “If you are sick, of course you should be at home. But if you are unwell, you should wear a medical mask and the people who are caring for you should also wear a medical mask.

Dr Ghebreyesus added: “In light of evolving evidence, WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops, or in other confined or crowded environments.”

How to better protect yourself if you’re aged 60+

It’s always important to get your flu jab, but especially this year where we face the risk of flu season clashing with the coronavirus. The CDC advises flu vaccinations for the majority of people, but especially for adults aged 65 and above. That’s because people in that age group account for the majority of hospitalizations and deaths from flu and from COVID-19.

Other ways you can reduce your COVID-19 risk include:

  • Limiting your visits with other people where possible
  • Wearing a face mask when shopping, using public transport, or venturing into spaces where social distancing is difficult
  • Avoid being in close contact with other who are not wearing face masks
  • Wash or sanitize your hands regularly, especially if handling objects a person outside of your household has touched
  • Try to socialize in low-risk settings, such as parks and outdoor venues
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle, including eating well and getting regular exercise

How to wear a medical face mask: WHO advice

However, not everyone needs a medical mask

Don’t interpret the revised WHO face mask guidance as a need to stock up on medical grade face masks, because not everyone needs them. Depending on the person and the situation, cloth face coverings still provide an adequate level of protection when combined with proper hand hygiene and social distancing.

In fact, the type of face mask required is very context-specific, as Dr Kerkhove explains: “What is new in the guidance is that we provide specific examples of situations in community transmission where physical distancing cannot be achieved or maintained, that a non-medical mask, a fabric mask, should be used.

“We have evidence now that if this is done properly it can provide a barrier… for potentially infectious droplets.”

To recap:

  • If you have COVID-19 or coronavirus, or you're caring for someone who is infected, wear a medical grade face mask.
  • If you are not sick but are working, living or traveling in areas where there is active transmission, wear a fabric face mask UNLESS you are aged 60+ or have an underlying health condition - in those cases, wear a medical mask.

An illustration showing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic

(Image credit: Getty)

Face masks alone will not protect you from COVID-19

During the media briefing, WHO Director General Dr Ghebreyesus stressed that face masks alone cannot protect people from COVID-19. “Masks are not a replacement for physical distancing, hand hygiene and other public health measures. Masks are only of benefit as part of a comprehensive approach in the fight against COVID-19.

“Masks can also create a false sense of security,” he continued, “leading people to neglect measures such as hand hygiene and physical distancing.”

This tallies with guidance from the CDC and the Mayo Clinic, with advice stressing the importance of staying at least one meter apart from others outside of your household, and washing your hands regularly with soap and water.

Face mask materials, according to WHO research

Each month we see more research surfacing about the effectiveness of homemade face masks vs surgical masks, and whether certain types of materials are better than others when it comes to personal masks. If you’d like to make your own, we talk you through it in our homemade face masks 101.

No time to make one? Then read our guide on where to buy reusable fabric face masks, before learning key fabric mask care tips, including how often you should wash your face mask.

WHO’s renewed face mask guidance states that fabric face masks should: 

  • Consist of three layers of fabric
  • The outer layer should be a water-resistant fabric
  • The inner layer should be water absorbent
  • The middle layer should act as a filter

Looking for more coronavirus content? Take a look at our guides to the best digital thermometers for fever monitoring, and learn the difference between coronavirus symptoms vs seasonal allergies.

Claire is Health and Wellness Editor at Top Ten Reviews and covers all aspects of health, wellbeing and personal care. With over 17 years' experience as a qualified journalist, writer and editor, Claire has worked across some of Future's most prestigious, market-leading brands. Due to past struggles with insomnia, she is particularly passionate about the role quality sleep plays in our physical and mental health, and loves helping readers to sleep better. Claire is always keen to hear from brands regarding products and services that can help readers feel healthy, happy and empowered.