MERS south korea face masks
Elementary school students wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus as they wait for a lesson to start at Midong Elementary School in Seoul on June 9, 2015.Chung Sung-Jun—Getty Images
MERS south korea face masks
A student has her temperature taken by a teacher outside the Sungshin elementary school in Seoul on June 8, 2015.
MERS south korea face masks
MERS south korea face masks
MERS south korea face masks
MERS south korea face masks
MERS south korea face masks
MERS south korea face masks
MERS south korea face masks
MERS south korea face masks
Elementary school students wear masks as a precaution against the MERS virus as they wait for a lesson to start at Midon
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Chung Sung-Jun—Getty Images
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South Korea’s Latest Fashion Accessory: Face Masks

Jun 16, 2015
TIME Health
For more, visit TIME Health.

It may be more psychological than logical. Everyone from school children to the nation’s famously fashion-forward teens are covering up in the face of MERS, or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, a coronavirus that aims straight for the lungs and makes breathing a challenge. The culprit? Virus particles that spread between people who are in close contact, presumably from saliva and secretions that are released when people cough or sneeze.

Most cases, including the 154 reported so far in South Korea, are spread from infected patients in hospitals to health care personnel or close caregivers. But that hasn’t stopped Korean residents from buying out the supply of face masks in the capital city of Seoul, where the first patient sough medical care after becoming ill.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care personnel or others who come in contact with MERS patients should wear something called an N-95 respirator, which has a disposable, fitted facepiece filter that can prevent users from breathing in droplets that may contain the virus.

Paper face masks, which fit loosely over the face, can also block large droplets or splatter but can’t completely prevent someone from inhaling viruses, especially if they are in close contact with an infected person for a relatively long time. Public areas in South Korea aren’t particularly high-risk locales, but the idea that some barrier is better than no barrier is likely driving the sales of these masks, some of which come adorned with popular cartoon characters and other logos. It’s also an extension of the Asian habit of donning masks when you’re sick—not so much to protect yourself from getting infected with something, but to prevent you from infecting others.

Read next: This Photo Symbolizes Just How Much MERS Is Taking Over South Korea

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