Surgical Face Masks
A surgical face mask is a disposable face mask worn over the nose and mouth to help protect against the inhalation of airborne particles and to help prevent the spread of unhealthy airborne particles. Unlike other cloth face coverings, a medical face mask is very carefully designed and manufactured to ensure that it remains effective at the prevention of spreading disease but not of minimising any respiratory distress a person may feel due to heavy pollution in the air.
Medical authorities including the Australian Government’s Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the US often recommend the use of medical masks and N95 masks during times of peak illness or peak air pollutants. For example, the N95 respirator, a protective mask capable of filtering out 95% of airborne particles, was recommended for people experiencing respiratory issues relating to bush fire smoke.
How to use surgical face mask correctly
How to use a surgical face mask correctly will depend on the type of mask that you intend to use and what its primary use is actually for. A medical face mask typically worn by surgeons or other health care workers is tied around the back of the head, or secured using ear loops, and completely covers the face the nose.
The N95 face mask is not a surgical face mask but is instead a particular form of respirator mask manufactured using a very specific and specialised process called melt blowing which forms an inner protective layer and filter for the mask wearer. This filter is responsible for tightly controlling what can be breathed through the mask and will only work effectively as an antiviral face mask if worn correctly and to the manufacturer’s standards.
Medical masks like an N95 respirator mask must be worn entirely over the nose and mouth and be tight fitting. There must be a complete seal between the edge of the mask and the skin it is in contact with to remain effective. If there is not a complete seal, then airborne particles may pass between the gap and no filtration of the air that you are breathing will occur. Surgical masks, alternatively, are not the same. These are looser fitting face masks used primarily to capture droplets and fluid expelled by the wearer and not for filtration of the air the wearer is breathing.
Both a surgical face mask and a N95 respirator, also known as a P2 mask, resemble a duckbill design. This design is the most intuitive form to be worn comfortably over the face without affecting sight or hearing impairment. It should be noted, however, that not all medical face masks and P2/N95 respirators are comfortable to wear or suitable for all people. If you have facial hair, then it is unlikely that the all-important seal between your skin and the mask can be achieved effectively. While you may not be able to effectively filter the air that you are breathing in this case, you may still be able to limit the germs that you emit during respiration which can still aid in the prevention of spreading disease to others.
The P2/N95 masks can also increase breathing difficulty either until it is worn long enough to become used to, or until it becomes unmanageable to wear. As you are drawing breath through a filter, the physical energy required to breathe will increase. This may not be suitable for some people and if you do feel affected in the form of shortness of breath or light-headedness then you should cease wearing the mask and consult your GP if the symptoms do not go away.
In these cases, a surgical face mask may be the better option for you. They are looser fitting and do not generally cause a significant increase in energy needed to breathe normally. Wearing a surgical face mask while in public settings can help to limit the spread of infectious diseases like influenza and the coronavirus by containing the germs and airborne particles that you produce while breathing. Often the symptoms of infectious diseases can seem untroubling to someone otherwise fit and healthy, or who may only have a mild case of the illness. By wearing a surgical face mask while out in public you can help to reduce the chances of somebody else contracting an illness from you that you may not be aware that you are carrying.
Other measures you can take as well as wearing a surgical face mask to ensure that you are not unwittingly spreading Covid-19, influenza or other infectious illnesses include adhering to a strict and thorough personal hygiene practice. This should include washing your hands with warm water and soap for a minimum of 30 seconds before you leave your house and when you get home. Warm water and soap remain the gold standard in cleanliness as the combination removes the natural oils we accumulate on our skin and which are responsible for containing infectious microbes.
You may not always have access to warm water and to soap, particularly when you are out in public, so it is handy to carry with you both hand sanitiser and alcohol swabs. Isopropyl alcohol is a concentrated chemical alcohol used for surgical-grade cleanliness. It is capable of killing most germs or, at the very least, significantly reducing your chances of collecting germs from surface cleaned with it. Generally speaking, an alcohol level of at least 70% is required for a sanitiser to be effective so ensure that you purchase your wipes or hand sanitisers from reputable distributors and from trusted brands and manufacturers.
Other forms of sanitiser that do not contain alcohol can also be used but they are generally less effective. Ensure you are regularly adhering to your personal hygiene regime at all times when you can and that you thoroughly wash surfaces, clothes and soft furnishings around the home as often as practicable.
How long can you wear a surgical face mask?
Your surgical face mask should be disposed of hygienically once the material in the mask becomes moist. Try to do so in a controlled air environment like your home. Similarly, the P2/N95 face mask should be disposed of once when the filter becomes moist.
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