Masks for Prevention of Respiratory Virus Infections, Including SARS-CoV-2, in Health Care and Community Settings : A Living Rapid Review

Ann Intern Med. 2020 Oct 6;173(7):542-555. doi: 10.7326/M20-3213. Epub 2020 Jun 24.


Background: Recommendations on masks for preventing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vary.

Purpose: To examine the effectiveness of N95, surgical, and cloth masks in community and health care settings for preventing respiratory virus infections, and effects of reuse or extended use of N95 masks.

Data sources: Multiple electronic databases, including the World Health Organization COVID-19 database and medRxiv preprint server (2003 through 14 April 2020; surveillance through 2 June 2020), and reference lists.

Study selection: Randomized trials of masks and risk for respiratory virus infection, including severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), and observational studies of mask use and coronavirus infection risk were included. New evidence will be incorporated by using living review methods.

Data extraction: One reviewer abstracted data and assessed methodological limitations; a second reviewer provided verification.

Data synthesis: 39 studies (18 randomized controlled trials and 21 observational studies; 33 867 participants) were included. No study evaluated reuse or extended use of N95 masks. Evidence on SARS-CoV-2 was limited to 2 observational studies with serious limitations. Community mask use was possibly associated with decreased risk for SARS-CoV-1 infection in observational studies. In high- or moderate-risk health care settings, observational studies found that risk for infection with SARS-CoV-1 and Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus probably decreased with mask use versus nonuse and possibly decreased with N95 versus surgical mask use. Randomized trials in community settings found possibly no difference between N95 versus surgical masks and probably no difference between surgical versus no mask in risk for influenza or influenza-like illness, but compliance was low. In health care settings, N95 and surgical masks were probably associated with similar risks for influenza-like illness and laboratory-confirmed viral infection; clinical respiratory illness had inconsistency. Bothersome symptoms were common.

Limitations: There were few SARS-CoV-2 studies, observational studies have methodological limitations, and the review was done by using streamlined methods.

Conclusion: Evidence on mask effectiveness for respiratory infection prevention is stronger in health care than community settings. N95 respirators might reduce SARS-CoV-1 risk versus surgical masks in health care settings, but applicability to SARS-CoV-2 is uncertain.

Primary funding source: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Betacoronavirus
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / prevention & control*
  • Humans
  • Influenza, Human / prevention & control*
  • Masks*
  • Observational Studies as Topic
  • Pandemics / prevention & control*
  • Patient Compliance
  • Pneumonia, Viral / prevention & control*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Respiratory Tract Infections / prevention & control*
  • SARS-CoV-2