Coronavirus: Demand for face masks in Germany jumps - but do they actually work?

Coronavirus: Demand for face masks in Germany jumps - but do they actually work?
A woman wearing a protective face mask in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

Face masks are flying off the shelves across Germany after authorities confirmed cases in Bavaria. But are they effective?


People wearing face masks have become a defining image of large health outbreaks. And for the coronavirus it's no different.

Now the arrival of the virus in Germany is fuelling a demand for the protective face masks.

However, experts say the thin material masks, which are meant for surgeons to carry out operations safely, do little to stop a respiratory virus spreading at least in these early stages.

According to Bavarian broadcaster BR24, some pharmacies in Germany have reported selling out of the masks, which are worn over the mouth and nose. 

A spokesman for the Bavarian Pharmacists' Association told DPA on Tuesday that he had heard pharmacies in Lower Franconia and Munich had also run out of the masks.

The Federal Association of Pharmaceutical Wholesalers confirmed that individual wholesalers were unable to meet the demand from pharmacies.


However, Bernd Salzberger, chairman of the German Society for Infectiology at Regensburg University Hospital, said these masks were not appropriate in the context of Germany's current situation.

Four people – all in Bavaria – have so far been found to have the coronavirus.

"Personal protection is completely absurd at the moment," Salzberger told DPA.

According to Salzberger, so-called surgical face masks are not actually designed to protect against infection, but rather to prevent potentially infectious droplets from the respiratory tract of surgeons from entering the operating area.

It would make sense, for example, to wear a mask to protect other people when you are ill with flu or another virus, he said. "But the protection against an infection from outside doesn't work very well," Salzberger said.

It is impossible to say how many breathing masks are out of stock in Bavaria – and the rest of Germany – as concrete numbers are not yet available, said Ursula Sellerberg of the Federal Association of German Pharmacists' Associations.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) also advise against the use of mouth and nose protection for the general population, as long as you are not a suspected case or you're not in contact with sick people.

How should you protect yourself?

In order to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, good hand hygiene, carrying out so-called coughing and sneezing etiquette and keeping a distance from sick people should be observed.

"In view of the wave of influenza, however, these measures are advisable everywhere and at all times," writes the RKI.

If you have to cough and sneeze, it is better not to do it in your hand, but in your sweater or jacket sleeve and that keeps your hands clean.

When coughing and sneezing, you should try and keep a distance from others.

Tips for proper hand hygiene

Hands should be washed with soap for 20 to 30 seconds several times a day, not only after going to the toilet and before meals, but also before preparing food.

Hands should also be thoroughly cleaned after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing, after contact with rubbish and before handling medication.

It is also advisable to keep your hands away from your face and avoid shaking hands. In public facilities, hands should be dried with a paper towel, if possible, rather than a hand dryer.

Ventilation also helps

Regular ventilation by opening the window in the office or at home is advisable. This counteracts the spread of viruses in the air and reduces the risk of infection.

It also improves the indoor climate, which prevents the mucous membranes of the mouth and nose from drying out, which in turn is very important for defending against viruses.


Protective face masks - (die) Schutzmasken

Surgical face mask - (die) chirurgische Gesichtsmaske

Respiratory disease - (die) Atemwegserkrankung

Advisable - ratsam

Ventilation - (das) Lüften



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