Ask the Doctors: How-tos of wearing a mask

Dear Doctor: Our city has asked us to wear a face mask when we leave the house. Needless to say, my wife and I have never done this before. Does our 5-year-old son need a mask, too? Any guidance or how-tos would be greatly appreciated.


Dear Reader: Your local government is following the updated recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which urges people to wear a cloth covering over their nose and mouth whenever they go out in public. These face coverings don't serve as protection from becoming infected with the virus. Rather, they are a physical barrier that may prevent someone who is infected from spreading it. This is particularly valuable in cases where someone is infected but has no symptoms.


This is very important, so imagine our voices as stern and serious when you reach the uppercase words in the next sentence. A face mask should only be used IN ADDITION TO and never INSTEAD OF the other important steps we're all taking right now. These include social distancing, frequent and thorough hand-washing, not touching your face, and cleaning high-touch surfaces such as door handles, light switches, phones, eyeglasses and sunglasses. (And don't forget about the handles of your car doors and your steering wheel.)


Face coverings should be snug but comfortable, fit against the sides of the face and beneath the chin, and allow for unrestricted breathing. They can be secured by ear loops or ties and should include multiple layers of fabric. Make sure the masks you choose can be washed and machine dried without damaging the mask or changing its shape.


When putting on a mask, start with clean hands. Always hold it by the strings or straps, not by the mask itself. Place it over your nose and mouth and adjust the straps so that you have a snug but comfortable fit. If your mask has a bendable metal clip over the bridge of the nose, gently adjust it to the contour of your face. If you wear glasses, put them on after the mask. It's important that any facial covering you use, even if it's just a bandanna, completely covers both your nose and mouth, and also the bottom of your chin. It's helpful to practice at home to get optimal fit and comfort.


Before you remove your mask, clean your hands. Again, you'll be handling it only by the ties or straps. If it's disposable, throw it away. If it's reusable, wash it with soap in hot water and machine dry thoroughly on medium or high heat. And please, never use medical-grade N95 masks. These are in short supply and are desperately needed to keep frontline workers safe.


Yes, your son should wear a mask in public as well. The CDC recommends everyone 2 years of age and older wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth. Due to the risk of suffocation, face coverings should not be used on anyone younger than 2. We hope this helps, and that you and your family stay vigilant, safe and healthy.


Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.