When Do You Still Need to Wear a Mask?

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on when people need to wear a mask. Those recommendations are different for vaccinated and unvaccinated people, and keep in mind, most children are still unvaccinated. Find out whether—and where—you should still be wearing a face covering.

What We Know About the COVID-19 Vaccines

Based on the available and growing body of evidence, scientists have determined that all three available COVID-19 vaccines—Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson—are both safe and effective at preventing serious illness and death from COVID-19. Not only have laboratory tests shown them to be extremely effective, real-world conditions have also supported that conclusion. Scientists have found that receiving even one dose of the two-dose types (Pfizer and Moderna) provides some protection against infection and illness, though you aren’t considered fully vaccinated until two weeks after the second dose (or after the first and only dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).

While mutations of the coronavirus are still a concern, the vaccines have also been shown to be effective at preventing serious disease from most variants as well. Some variants, however, may still cause fully vaccinated people to get sick.

Scientists don’t yet know how long the vaccines will protect people from the virus. Booster shots may be necessary in the future.

When to Wear a Mask If You’re Vaccinated

In short—it’s safe to ditch your mask in most situations, but there are some exceptions. The CDC has relaxed its recommendations on when to wear a mask after a vaccine, saying that most indoor and outdoor activities are safe. The CDC also says fully vaccinated people don’t need to physically distance themselves from others anymore.

Vaccinated people should still wear a mask when they:

  • Travel by plane or are in an airport

  • Use public transportation, such as buses or trains, or are in a station

  • Visit a medical office or other healthcare setting

  • Visit a correctional facility or homeless shelter

Keep in mind that you still need to follow local laws on wearing masks, as well as business and workplace guidelines, even if you’re fully vaccinated. And if you’re experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19—such as fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste or smell, body aches, or headache—you should get tested, wear a mask, and stay away from others until you get your test results. Remember, the vaccines have been shown to be very effective at protecting against the disease, but the risk is still not zero.

When to Wear a Mask If You’re Unvaccinated

The recommendations for unvaccinated people haven’t changed—masks and physical distancing are still necessary in most situations. This includes most children, as the CDC only recently approved the Pfizer vaccine for children as young as 12 years old. Children younger than 12 have not been approved to get any vaccine yet, although clinical trials are in progress.

Unvaccinated people can safely go without masks in limited situations, including:

  • Outdoor activities with members of their household

  • Small outdoor get-togethers with people who are fully vaccinated 

Caveat to the Updated Mask Recommendations

Scientists still don’t know how well the vaccines protect people who are immunocompromised, including people who take immunosuppressive drugs. Immunocompromised people who are fully vaccinated should talk with their doctor about what safety measures they should continue regarding masks and physical distancing.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 May 17
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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