Questions and answers on COVID-19: Prevention

1. How can I avoid SARS-CoV-2 infection?

To avoid SARS-CoV-2 infection:

  • get vaccinated against COVID-19
  • keep your distance from others (ideally two metres)
  • avoid large gatherings
  • wear a mask in situations where physical distancing is not possible
  • regularly wash and sanitise your hands
  • open the windows regularly, if possible, to improve ventilation.

The use of face masks in public indoor settings (e.g. supermarkets, shops and public transport) and in crowded outdoor situations is strongly advised in areas with more COVID-19 cases and when physical distancing cannot be guaranteed.

The virus can enter the body via the nose, mouth and/or eyes, so individuals should avoid touching their faces with unwashed hands. Washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or cleaning hands thoroughly with alcohol-based solutions or gels, or disposable alcohol wipes, is recommended in all settings.

Good ventilation of indoor spaces through natural or mechanical means is an important measure to decrease the risk of infection. Avoid poorly ventilated, crowded spaces.

2. What should I do if I develop symptoms of COVID-19?

National public health authorities will have specific guidelines for those who develop symptoms of COVID-19 (e.g. ‘call the local COVID-19 helpline’). Alternatively, local healthcare providers can be contacted for instructions. Self-tests (such as rapid antigen tests, if used according to the manufacturer’s instructions) or laboratory-processed tests (such as PCR tests) can be used to test for SARS-CoV-2 to confirm whether the symptoms are indicative of COVID-19.

3. How can I avoid infecting others?

Anyone who develops symptoms compatible with COVID-19 should stay home and follow local recommendations for testing, isolation from others and medical care. Those with COVID-19 symptoms can also do the following to avoid infecting others:

  • Cough or sneeze into your elbow or into a tissue (if you use a tissue, dispose of it carefully after a single use and wash your hands afterwards)
  • Wear a face mask if you are in close contact with others (e.g. in a home setting) and if you visit closed public spaces or are in contact with vulnerable people, such as the elderly
  • Practice physical distancing
  • Practice proper hand hygiene and wash your hands regularly
  • Avoiding touching your face, nose, eyes and mouth, and wash your hands thoroughly before and after doing so.

4. What is physical distancing and why and how should I do it?

The term ‘physical distancing’ means the same as the previously used term ‘social distancing’, but it more accurately describes what is intended: that people should keep a physical distance from one another.

Physical distancing aims to reduce close contact between people in settings where there is moderate to high SARS-CoV-2 circulation, to reduce opportunities for the virus to pass from one person to another. This measure should ideally be complemented by others, such as ensuring ventilation with fresh air.

To practice physical distancing:

  • limit physical interactions with other people and follow the guidelines issued by your health authorities
  • self-isolate if you know you have COVID-19 or if you have symptoms such as a cough, fever or headache
  • quarantine if you have had contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case, following the guidelines issued by your health authorities.

The success of physical distancing measures depends on whether or not people maintain a physical distance from friends, family and colleagues during social interactions. Communicating via the internet and the phone are therefore helpful for physical distancing.

Many countries in the EU/EEA have introduced various physical distancing measures at some point during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent the further spread of the virus locally or nationally. These measures have included:

  • full or partial closure of schools, universities and other educational facilities
  • full or partial closure of businesses (e.g. restaurants, entertainment venues)
  • recommendations to work from home as much as possible
  • limits on the number of visitors and contact between residents in confined settings, such as long-term care facilities and prisons
  • restriction or cancellation of mass gatherings with more than a certain number of people
  • limits on the movement of people between regions or countries
  • stay-at-home restrictions for entire regions or countries.

Countries adjust these measures according to their local epidemiological situations, the assessed levels of public health risk and societal costs.

 COVID-19 infographic: Types of face masks

5. Are face masks effective in protecting against COVID-19?

The evidence for the use of medical face masks to protect against COVID-19 is limited. Available evidence shows a small to moderate protective effect and that face masks may lower the risk of infecting others by decreasing the release of infectious particles during breathing and talking.

Therefore, face masks should be used together with other measures to decrease transmission of SARS-CoV-2.

Individuals can consider using a face mask when visiting busy, enclosed spaces where it is not possible to maintain sufficient physical distance from others, such as at grocery stores and shopping centres or when using public transport. We strongly recommend the use of medical face masks or respirators, if available, for individuals at increased risk of severe COVID-19 in these settings.

The use of face masks should not be a substitute for other recommended measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission, such as physical distancing, respiratory etiquette, hand hygiene, and avoiding touching the face, nose, eyes and mouth. The key to the effective use of face masks is to use them correctly and consistently.

6. How do I use a face mask correctly?

Make sure that the face mask fully covers from the bridge of the nose to the chin. The face mask should fit snugly with as little space as possible between the face and the mask. Do not wear a mask that fits loosely. Do not wear a mask that appears damaged or is not clean.

When taking the mask off, remove it from behind and avoid touching the front or back sides. Clean your hands before putting on and after removing a face mask. Do not re-use a face mask.

7. What type of face mask should I wear?

The types of face masks that can be used include:

  • medical face masks
  • respirators
  • community face coverings.

If community face coverings are used, they should comply with available guidelines for filtration efficacy and breathability.

Respirators (also known as FFP2 or N95 masks) may provide better protection compared with medical masks for the public, as properly fitted respirators provide better filtration.  

8. Should I wear a face mask even if I am vaccinated?

COVID-19 vaccines are very effective in preventing severe disease and death, but vaccinated people can still get infected with SARS-CoV-2 and transmit the infection. Wearing a face mask may decrease the risk of infection and transmission.

Therefore, we recommend that vaccinated people wear face masks when visiting confined public spaces where it is not possible to maintain sufficient physical distance from others, such as at grocery stores and shopping centres or when using public transport in areas with community transmission of COVID-19.

9. Should I wear a face mask outdoors?

In general, wearing a face mask outdoors is not recommended. However, in areas with community transmission of COVID-19 you may consider wearing a face mask in crowded outdoor settings.

10. What should I do if I have recently been in contact with a person who is infected with COVID-19?

If feasible, people who are identified as contacts of a case of COVID-19 should quarantine (stay at home and isolate from others) for a specific number of days, as recommended by the national public health authorities. They should also monitor for symptoms and get tested, as per the local guidelines.

11. Can the frequent use of alcohol-based hand rub solutions, or surface disinfectants, cause the SARS-COV-2 virus to develop resistance similar to antibiotic resistance?

Antibiotics are substances that kill or inactivate bacteria in human or animal bodies. Antibiotics do not kill viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.

Alcohol-based hand rub solutions and surface disinfectants are substances that kill microorganisms (i.e. bacteria and viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19) on the skin, objects or surfaces. Antibiotics have a different composition from alcohol-based hand rub solutions or surface disinfectants, and work differently.

Scientific studies and practical experience worldwide have shown that the use of alcohol-based hand rub solutions and surface disinfectants do not generally trigger resistance in viruses or bacteria.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that alcohol-based hand rub solutions should only be used locally on skin and surface disinfectants should only be used on surfaces. Neither product should ever be ingested. Always follow the instructions from the manufacturer or public health authorities to avoid serious side effects.