Why Do Asians Wear Surgical Masks?

If you have a passing interest in your health then you may have noticed that a lot of Asian people seem to be wearing surgical masks around town and perhaps you find this a little disconcerting. Do they know something we don’t? Is the zombie apocalypse on us already? Or is it just an odd fashion trend? Let’s take a look at what’s going on.

The Idea

Despite many thinking that these masks are aimed at combating the harmful effects of pollution, the main reason that many Asian people wear surgical masks is actually to prevent the spread of colds. In Japan it is considered ‘polite’ to wear these masks if you are suffering from a cold in order to prevent it from spreading and it’s now quite popular as a result.

This accounts for the use of surgical masks by most Japanese individuals in populated areas, but they can also be worn to combat allergies. Hay fever has been particularly common among the Japanese population ever since the 1960s when reforestation policies resulted in abnormally high amounts of pollen, so in more rural areas you shouldn’t be surprised to see a lot of these masks. Finally, surgical masks are worn occasionally to avoid catching colds or to protect against pollution – though it’s usually one of the former reasons.

Surgical masks have also been used in Southeast Asia and some other areas in order to combat specific health scares. For instance, face masks were popular in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Toronto in Canada during outbreaks of SARS.

Do They Really Work? Should You Wear Them?

That’s all good and well, but the question is whether or not you should be wearing surgical masks as well? Do they really work? And if so, shouldn’t we all be wearing them?

The answer to whether or not surgical masks can really prevent the spread of disease is a rather disappointing ‘kind of’. Many studies have shown that masks do reduce the amount of bacteria shed into the air when we cough, talk or sneeze and this has even been shown to work within households.

However a mask will still only catch a percentage of those germs, and as such it’s still important to put your hand in front of your mouth. If wearing a surgical mask means someone stops putting their hand in front when they sneeze or cough, then it may actually be counter-productive and have a detrimental effect rather than a positive one. And if holding your hand in front can catch a greater proportion of the bacterial droplets, then you may as well just do that. Likewise, while a mask might block some of the larger bacteria from getting in, you’ll still be susceptible to many types of disease. And let’s not forget that a little bacteria is no bad thing for our immune systems which need to be given a chance to flex their muscles from time to time to stay strong.

More to the point though, many report finding it very uncomfortable to constantly wear a surgical mask and as the benefits are probably marginal at best, this will probably seem like too much effort for a lot of us. Put your hand in front, remember to wash your hands, and don’t go out when you’re on death’s door – but don’t worry about surgical masks unless you like the look.

Comments 4
  1. Not supposed to cover cough with hand. All u.s. public health departments say to cough or sneeze into elbow. It covers more area and doesn't put bacteria and viruses on your hand. Many people don't wash their hands after coughing into them and then touch common things like door knobs. Best to cough in elbow!

    1. Thanks Erica, but I can’t seem to get my elbow to reach my mouth. Could you give me a hand here? Any tips?

  2. If Erica had suggested that we cough into our “cubita fossa”, I doubt most readers would have known what she was talking about. Maybe “elbow pit” is a good lexiconic compromise.

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