The latest evidence shows that children can be infected with COVID-19 and can infect each other and adults. However, they have an extremely low risk of becoming severely unwell from the infection and younger children are much less likely to pass the virus on than older ones.
By wearing face masks in public, even when children feel well, they can help stop the spread of COVID-19 — and protect their families, their communities and themselves.
We spoke to UNICEF Health Expert Srihari Dutta to get his top tips on how children should be wearing masks in their daily lives.
COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets that people produce when they talk, sing, cough or sneeze. People can have the virus without ever showing symptoms — meaning you, and your children, can be contagious and not even realize it.
Masks work by catching COVID-19 droplets and stopping them from being passed on to other people. They can also protect the wearer from inhaling droplets and becoming infected.
Whether your child should wear a mask depends on a number of factors. Including their age, ability to safely use one and if they are in physical contact with someone who is ill. Across South Asia, some governments have additional requirements on mask use in public and by age. Check your local authority’s guidelines.
WHO and UNICEF advise the following:
In general, children aged 5 years and under should not wear masks. This advice is based on safety and the overall interests of young children.
Some countries have issued additional local guidance on mask use for very young children. For example, if children are physically close to someone who is ill. If your child under 5 is required to wear a mask, make sure they are always within a direct line of sight to you, so you can supervise.
You should decide whether your child, aged 6-11 years, needs to wear a mask based on:
You should also consider the potential impact that wearing a mask could have on your individual child’s learning and psychosocial development. Decide this in consultation with your child’s teachers and/or medical providers
Children aged 12 and over should wear a mask in the same way that adults do.
This means they should wear a mask in all public settings if COVID-19 is widespread in your area and:
Read more on children and mask use in the latest WHO and UNICEF guidance.
Children do not need to wear a mask when:
It’s important to understand the different types of masks available and which type your child should be wearing.
Fabric masks — also known as non-medical masks — are usually made of cotton. They come in many different styles and colours and are washable and reusable. To be effective, they should be made up of a minimum of three layers of fabric.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that most people — including children — wear this type of mask.
Fabric masks should be washed daily (after every use) in hot water with soap or detergent. Wait for your mask to dry completely before wearing it again.
Fabric masks can be expensive, but you can make your own at home. Watch the video below to learn how:
Medical masks — also known as surgical masks — are made of non-woven fabric, are normally three-layered and are designed for healthcare professionals.
Medical masks are in short supply globally because of the pandemic, so the World Health Organisation recommends that only certain groups of people wear this type of mask. This includes medical workers, those over 60 years old, those with underlying health conditions, those caring for someone with COVID-19 and people with symptoms of — or confirmed — COVID-19.
This means children should only wear this type of masks if they have underlying health conditions, have symptoms of — or confirmed — COVID-19, or are around someone who is ill.
Medical masks are not washable or reusable and should be discarded safely after 8 hours of continuous use.
Many masks are designed for adults and don’t fit children properly. Whether you are buying or making a mask for your child, make sure that:
Teach your children to continue washing their hands and keeping a distance from others when wearing a mask
A mask alone won’t stop the spread of COVID-19 infection and transmission — they’re only effective when combined with other behaviour.
Make sure you children know that when wearing a mask they should also continue to:
If you and your family plan to take masks off and reuse them during the day, carry clean resealable bags to store them. Here are some tips:
Avoid these six common mistakes
Ask your child if they can identify these six common mistakes that people often make when wearing masks. (The answers are below.)
From left to right:
Sharing masks can spread the virus. Make sure your child has their own mask and doesn’t share it with others.
Children (and adults) shouldn’t wear masks when playing sports or exercising. Sweat can make masks wet and make it difficult to breathe and easier for germs to grow.
Choose a place for your children to exercise where they can keep a safe physical distance from others, for example at home or outdoors, so a mask isn’t needed.
COVID-19 has upset family life around the world, causing stress, anxiety and sadness. Understandably masks may add to such feelings for many children. For younger children in particular, mask wearing can be confusing and upsetting.
Here are some ideas to help you introduce masks to your family: