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Now and then you see something like this when looking at pictures from Japan:

Japanese people with surgical face masks

There are supposedly many reasons for this, but one is, quoting a summary from Wikipedia:

Surgical masks are popularly worn by the general public in East Asian countries to reduce the chance of spreading airborne diseases; in Japan, it is common to wear a face mask whilst ill to avoid infecting others in public settings. In Japan and Taiwan, it is common to see these masks worn while ill, as a show of consideration for others and social responsibility.

(emphasis mine)

My question is: Does it help? That is, are people in Japan less sick from airborne diseases compared to cultures where it is not common to wear a mask? Are there any data to back it up, or to disprove it? I'm specifically thinking of the common cold, but other diseases would be interesting.

I appreciate the difficulty in answering such a question - it seems as if you would have to find a near-identical country to compare with, but then again, there are probably a lot of organizations tracking just this sort of thing.

  • I must say that two years is the longest time I've seen a question languish with no answers before suddenly becoming relevant and getting two in a single day. – Carey Gregory May 20 at 0:46
  • @CareyGregory Thank you. It's annoying when it takes a once-in-a-100-year global pandemic for someone to answer your question. – pipe May 20 at 9:26
  • @pipe We, people in Taiwan, knew surgical masks can prevent virus from spreading to a large extent during SARS 2003 outbreak. People in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China also knew that. That's why people here (I live in Taiwan) started to wear masks once we heard of Covid-19. We have very minimum number of infection here. I sincerely hope we are able to maintain that. I didn't see this question until the other day, so a late answer. (I am not a medical expert, my primary SE site is Academia SE). – scaaahu May 20 at 15:03
  • @scaaahu But you don't "know" that. No one analyzed all the data available and decided one day that people in south-east Asia should start to wear masks and the rest of the world shouldn't. Sometimes these things just happens, see for example the infamous fan death in Korea... – pipe May 20 at 15:45
  • @pipe No, it's not like "Sometimes these things just happens," I am probably a good example. I was born and raised in Taiwan. Then I went to US in my 20's. Stayed there for over 30 years. Went back to Taiwan in 2009. When I was in US, I never wore masks, it's just too uncomfortable. When I went back to Taiwan in 2009, I saw people wearing masks. I never wanted to join them. One day, my wife caught flu, we went to see a doc. He scold us why not wearing mask. Then, we started to wear masks. It's not just things happen. We learned painful lesson during SARS, 2003. – scaaahu May 21 at 2:11
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There is a recent paper The role of community-wide wearing of face mask for control of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) epidemic due to SARS-CoV-2 in The journal of Infection, 2020 Apr 23 doi: 10.1016/j.jinf.2020.04.024

The Conclusion

Community-wide mask wearing may contribute to the control of COVID-19 by reducing the amount of emission of infected saliva and respiratory droplets from individuals with subclinical or mild COVID-19

Please read the paper for further details.

You can also read the article COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer? by Mayo Clinic, in which they said

Can face masks help prevent the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)? Yes, face masks combined with other preventive measures, such as frequent hand-washing and social distancing, help slow the spread of the disease

and

Surgical masks may protect others by reducing exposure to the saliva and respiratory secretions of the mask wearer.

At this time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved any type of surgical mask specifically for protection against the COVID-19 virus, but these masks may provide some protection when N95 masks are not available

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Surgical masks do offer protection against some diseases, but I have not come across evidence that suggests their use by the mass public is beneficial. Clearly, if people are using them correctly, then people stand to benefit in the same way that health care providers do, however, the magnitude of benefit should be smaller for the general public because they face much less frequent exposure to infectious agents.

See:

(1) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29140516

(2) https://www.cebm.net/covid-19/what-is-the-efficacy-of-standard-face-masks-compared-to-respirator-masks-in-preventing-covid-type-respiratory-illnesses-in-primary-care-staff/

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    But those links only mention healthcare workers, for which there are no doubt thousands of research papers. I'm explicitly asking about masks in the context of the whole population. – pipe May 19 at 7:25
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    -1, please explain how the public is not benefitted if a contagious person (spewing virus particles) is controlling that infectious spread by wearing a mask. Consider the contagious person (wearing a mask) in an elevator with 6 other non-infected, it seems obvious that, the benefit to those 6 non-infected elevator riders is immediately huge. It becomes even more beneficial when those 6 non-infected go home to their families and attend their worship services and sporting events. – BobE May 20 at 3:38
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    Just so there is no misunderstanding, the mask wearing infected (or suspected infected) is principally protecting others, regardless of the others (mass public) occupation. – BobE May 20 at 3:42
  • @BobE, you said that I should explain how the public is not benefitted. I never claimed that the public is not benefitted. I simply said that there is little evidence on a population scale that there is benefit. Obviously, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Even the other answer with a recent research citation does not have particularly strong data. – Sohrab T May 20 at 6:57
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    U said "but I have not come across evidence that suggests their use by the mass public is beneficial", on it's face (that you have not found evidence) that is a true statement. Likewise I have not found any study that confirms that water is wet, or that hitting my thumb with a hammer will hurt. Snark aside, it is intuitive that isolation of virus particles (by physical containment of a virus inside an infected person's mask) is immediately beneficial to the health of everyone (population) that person encounters. – BobE May 20 at 13:02

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