Updated: Mar 14, 2020
There has been a lot of talk about medical face masks during the covid-19 epidemic. There is a lot of confusion about what they can do, what they can't, and which ones do what. This article will help you understand how to wear them and their capabilities to help you decide the best protection measures for your situation.
There are 3 main types of masks you will see floating around online and in stores. We will cover each type and what it can and can't do, as well as how to wear them. It is important to note that there has been a lot of talk about "masks being useless". This is not true. Each mask has it's own limits and it's own advantages. No mask can protect a person 100% and they are not an excuse to go out in large crowds or skip other infection protection measures. They are their to add to your total chances while taking all measures possible.
How the virus spreads: There has been a great deal of talk and speculation about whether covid-19 is airborne or not. The idea of it being airborne comes from several cases where individuals who were thought free of the virus were isolated on separate floors of apartment buildings from infected individuals. These non-infected individuals later were found to be infected leading many to conclude that the virus must be airborne and going through the ventilation system. However, with the information about the virus having a varied and sometimes long incubation period (5-28 or even 42 days by one report) experts believe that it is far more likely that those individuals were already infected when they were put in isolation. There is no current evidence that shows the virus to be airborne. Most agree that the virus is droplet and contact spread. Meaning someone coughs or sneezes without covering their mouth within 2 meters of you or, you touch something or someone and then you touch your face. Covid-19 enters the body through mucus membranes such as the mouth, nose and eyes. The virus is found in feces so a person who does not wash their hands after the bathroom can contaminate many surfaces. Hands are little virus grabbers and spread germs from surface to surface as objects are touched. A person then touches their mouth, nose or eyes, infecting themselves with the virus. This is considered the #1 way this and many other viruses are spread.
N95 medical face mask: This mask is considered the best protection from airborne pathogens as it filters 2 ways, both inhaling and exhaling. It is able to filter 95% of contaminants. However it has some serious draw backs. It must be worn tightly over the nose and mouth and be "sealed" around them tightly, making sure contact is made with the skin all the way around. It is hard to breath through and collects moisture quickly. It is very difficult to wear properly for more than 30-60 minutes at a time. This is why it is generally reserved for medical professionals in a healthcare environment. If the person wearing it is adjusting it to breath easier, or there are gaps at the edges, it loses it's filtering properties. It is not recommended as the discomfort of the mask often causes people to touch their face more, and not less.
3 ply surgical mask: This is the mask most often seen in doctors offices. They are usually either pink or blue on one side and white on the other. To wear this mask properly one must put the colored side facing out and the white side facing in towards your mouth. Cover the nose and mouth completely and make sure there are no gaps around the edges. This mask offers a one way filter that keeps an infected person from infecting those around them. This is very important because covid-19 can be spread by someone without symptoms. In other words, if you are perfectly healthy, you still have no idea whether you are infected and spreading the virus or not. This mask also offers some protection from droplet spreading by catching the droplets on the outer layer and it helps keep you from touching your face, which is the #1 way the virus is spread. It does not offer protection from airborne viruses and should be changed frequently. As these types of masks are designed for this they are inexpensive and come in boxes of 25, 50 and 100.
Cloth masks and dust masks: These masks offer no filtering for germs in either direction. These masks are however useful for helping an infected person cover their mouth to stop droplet dispersion onto nearby people and surfaces, and to help you to stop touching your face. These masks have their use but I wish to again state that they do not filter germs as you breath.
All of these masks have their uses and limits and it is important that you understand them. No mask can keep you 100% safe from covid-19. You still need to practice social distancing, wash/sanitize hands often and avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. The biggest risk with masks is that people gain a false sense of security and take risks that they would not usually take if the didn't have one on. This further exposes them to the virus and leads to infection. Masks have an important roll in infection prevention but they are only 1 aspect of it.
IMPORTANT: There is a risk of infecting yourself when taking off your mask. Masks and other protective gear need to be removed carefully to avoid the contaminated surface from coming into contact with the rest of you. When removing a mask take care not to let the outside touch your face. Dispose of in a closed trash bin, preferably at home to reduce risk of others coming in contact with it. After removing your mask, first wash hands with soap and warm water by scrubbing them for a minimum of 30 seconds. Rinse hands from the fingers down to move germs away from finger tips. At the end of the day, carefully wash your face with soap and warm water avoiding the mouth, nose and eyes.
If you suspect that you are infected put on a 3 ply surgical mask and contact a medical professional right away for instruction. If you have any symptoms such as coughing or sneezing please were a mask in public. Just because we are dealing with covid-19 it does not mean that other illnesses such as the flu are on vacation. There have been reports of persons being infected with BOTH influenza AND covid-19 at the same time. While I have no information as to the possible complications from this, it is definitely something to be avoided.
If you are not up to date on your immunizations, please make an appointment with your doctor to get up to date. We all need to protect ourselves and our communities from infectious disease. Stay safe!