Using respirators or surgical masks for protection, what you need to know

To offer protection against infection, both surgical masks and respirators need to be worn correctly and consistently.

The use of surgical masks or respirators is only one a number of practices that may reduce the risk of infectious disease transmission between infected and non-infected people, including cough etiquette, hand hygiene, and avoiding large gatherings.

Since there is limited historical information on the effectiveness of surgical masks and respirators for the control of influenza during any previous pandemics, the effectiveness of surgical masks and respirators have been inferred on the basis of the mode of influenza transmission, particle size and professional judgment.


N95 respirator
N95 respirator

Respirators are designed to reduce a wearer’s exposure to airborne contaminants. They come in various sizes and where possible should be individually selected to fit the wearer’s face and to provide a tight seal.

A proper seal between the user’s face and the respirator forces inhaled air to be pulled through the respirator’s filter material and not through gaps between the face and respirator.

Respirators offer the best protection for people who come into contact with (or within 6 feet) of people who have influenza-like symptoms.

N95 respirators filter out most airborne particles from the surrounding air, preventing wearers from breathing in particles down to 0.3 microns in diameter. These types of masks are often used when air quality is poor due to wildfire smoke or pollution, and they’re designed to be tightly fitted. The coronavirus is reportedly 0.12 microns in diameter, however Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine suggest that the N95 filters out 95 percent of pollutants and is “highly effective” in preventing the transmission of viruses.

Surgical Masks:

Surgical masks
Surgical masks

Surgical masks are used as a physical barrier to protect the user from hazards, such as large droplets of blood or bodily fluids. Masks trap large particles of fluids that may contain bacteria or viruses expelled by the wearer, by sneezing of coughing.

Surgical masks are not designed or certified to prevent the inhalation of small airborne contaminants. These particles are not visible to the naked eye but may still be capable of causing infection.

Surgical masks are not designed to seal tightly against the user’s face. During inhalation, potentially contaminated air can pass through gaps between the face and the surgical mask and not be pulled through the filter material of the mask. Their ability to filter small particles varies significantly based upon the type of material used to make the surgical mask.

Many people do not wear face masks properly:

Wearers often move the masks to the side to touch their faces throughout the day, breaking the barrier that the mask is supposed to create. This can make the protection ineffective.

Even with perfect use, these masks aren’t fool proof because a virus or pathogen can still slip through the sides or enter the body through the eyes.

The outer fabric of a surgical face masks is usually yellow or blue with one elastic or wire edge for tightening. To put it on properly, the mask’s absorbent side must be worn facing in and the colored side facing out. The mask needs to fit securely cover the mouth, chin and nose. That is why the edge with the metal strip is put at the top — so that the metal can be molded over the nose.

Removing the mask correctly is equally important. The mask should be treated as if it’s contaminated and pulled off by the straps around the ears, and never just lowered from the mouth.

As part of China’s emergency efforts, state media reported that the country’s minister of industry has ordered factories “to overcome labour difficulties during the Spring Festival, accelerate production and do their utmost to increase supply to the market,” face masks included.

According to the Washington post, Chinese face mask manufacturers have reported that they’re running factories through the Lunar New Year holiday break to keep up with the demand. Companies are even offering to increase workers’ wages dramatically to entice them to return to work early and stay for longer hours.

Just as important and often overlooked steps to prevent infection:

During a recent study, of 249 people in public places, on the Washington, D.C. subway, researchers recorded how often they touched a common surface and then their mouth or nose. They found that people touched their faces an average of 3.6 times per hour, and common objects an average of 3.3 times per hour.

This rate of self-touching means that people likely get contaminants on their hands much more frequently than they wash their hands.

“It is important to understand the basic mechanisms through which diseases are transmitted to take full advantage of hand-washing ,” according to the authors.

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand rub.

Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. This cannot be stressed enough, germs and viruses spread this way.

Related article: People’s Government of Hainan Province Notice on Initiating a Class I Public Health Emergency Response Mechanism

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