Are Surgical Masks Protection Against Viruses?
Every time the haze season hits Malaysia, only one item will fly off the shelves: surgical masks and face masks of all kinds.
We commonly see photos of people from Asian countries sporting white or blue surgical masks, but do they know that they might be wearing the wrong face mask and are still putting their health at risk?
With the discovery of the new Coronavirus in China, authorities are encouraging people in the city of Wuhan to wear surgical masks in public to help curtail the spread of the disease.
But do they protect against viruses?
Surgeons and nurses performing clean surgery wear disposable face masks. The purpose of surgical masks is primarily two-fold:
- to prevent the passage of germs from the surgeon's nose and mouth into the patient's wound and,
- to protect the surgeon's face from sprays and splashes from the patient.
Surgical masks are less effective because they are designed to protect users from liquids (like blood), so they do not filter fine particles and harmful substances in the air.
Specialists in infectious diseases say cheap surgical masks help somewhat in preventing the spread of diseases if they are worn properly and consistently. But there isn't much scientific evidence that face masks are effective outside healthcare settings.
Dr. Julie Vaishampayan, chairwoman of the public health committee for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, said surgical masks are really “the last line of defense.”
“We worry about people feeling they’re getting more protection from the mask than they really are,” she said. “Washing your hands and avoiding people who are ill is way more important than wearing a mask.”
Because surgical masks aren’t fitted or sealed, they leave gaps around the mouth, “so you’re not filtering all of the air that comes in,” she said.
The masks will, however, block most large respiratory droplets from other people’s sneezes and coughs from entering your mouth and nose. Coronaviruses are primarily spread through droplets.
However, face masks work best if the sick person wears it - to keep their germs from leaving the mask and spewing the virus out in the air where it will affect others.
The bigger problem is that people don’t use the masks properly. “Most people will put their hand underneath the mask to scratch their face or rub their nose,” bringing contaminants in contact with the nose and mouth, said Dr. Adalja. “You can’t take it off when you get a phone call.”
So what works best?
Most face masks are used for protection for our lungs from inhaling dust, airborne particles, and liquids. No face masks are fool-proof protection from viruses because the micron size of the virus can easily slip through the weave of the material.
Having said that, there are heavy-duty, military-type gas/chemical masks that will filter out everything, but those are a bit overkill for the general public right now. Still, in case of a crisis involving poison gas expelled into our air, volcano eruption, or similar events, this particular type of mask would be good to add to your survival supplies.
Old Time Gas Masks (a bit of an overkill today)
The following is sourced from O.S.H.A.:
The following numbers represent the percentage of "microns - particle size" that are filtered out of the air when using the respirator, also known as the efficiency ratings of the respirator:
- 95 = 95% ( 5 microns or less)
- 99 = 99% ( 1 micron or less)
- 100 = 99.97% ( .3 microns or less) (best for international travel)
- PM2.5 = this means 2.5-microns or larger (wear a 99 or 100 respirator for PM2.5 protection)
- OV = Organic Vapor (gas leaving an individual's internal intestine is considered an example organic vapor; flatulence)
- AG = Acid Gas (fumes from acids and acid based solvents (examples: muriatic, sulfuric acid, etc) are safe to breath when AG is designated beside the number that designates the protection level of the respirator (example: P100 AG or P100 OV/AG)
What the letters mean:
- N Respirators = Particle Protection Only (Not Resistant To Oil) (8 - 12 hour protection)
- R Respirators = Particle and Oil Based Protection (Resistant To Oil) (8 hour protection)
- P Respirators = Particle and Oil Based Protection (Strongly Resistant to Oil or Oil-proof) (40 hour or 30 day service life (whichever comes first)
Here's a sampling of the best masks and respirators:
Dust Mask Anti Pollution Respirator PM2.5 Dust Proof Safety Mask Washable and Reusable with 8 Carbon N99 Filters
This respirator mask is designed for comfortable protection against non-toxic dust, pollen, mold, fumes, common airborne irritants, and other non-oil based particles. It will help you breathe in a cleaner, healthier way.
So, what's the best way to protect yourself?
To minimize your exposure to a respiratory illness such as the coronavirus, take the proper precautions:
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you are in a pinch.
- Do not touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
To avoid spreading a respiratory illness, be sure to do the following:
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.
Is it a pandemic?
A pandemic is an epidemic of disease that has spread across a large region; for instance multiple continents, or even worldwide.
A widespread endemic disease that is stable in terms of how many people are getting sick from it is not a pandemic.
CDC officials said they were monitoring the situation and, for now, "the
immediate health risk from 2019-nCoV to the general American public is
considered low at this time."
The coronavirus is not a pandemic - yet. So let's keep an eye on it and take all precautions necessary.
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