Personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies have been at the center of attention during the majority of the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United States, the majority of these items have been scarce, and healthcare centers struggle to obtain enough of them to protect all their workers. This protection is important because they’re one of the most exposed workers to COVID-19 infection.
In this article, we’ll discuss surgical masks, how they work, their uses, where they’re used, and by who. We’ll also discuss whether or not there are different designs for them.
Understanding surgical masks and how they work
Surgical masks are probably the most widely recognized disposable face mask. It acts as a physical barrier between the nose and mouth of the wearer and the environment surrounding them. They’re used mainly in healthcare settings, and can also be called medical or dental masks, labeled as such depending on if they’re used in surgical, medical, or dental procedures. Like the popular N95 respirators, these masks are often used in healthcare settings along with goggles or face shields to add protection to the eyes as well.
They’re also often called ‘regular face masks’ and this leads people to think there’s nothing special or particular about them. It’s important to understand these masks are specifically manufactured and designed to be used in healthcare settings where a sterile field is needed, following certain requirements and regulations. So, not any type of face mask can substitute them in healthcare settings. They can offer varying levels of protection and breathability depending on the varying levels of thickness they come in.
Similar to N95 masks, they’re disposable face masks, which means traditionally they should be used only once for a period of 8 to 12 hours. Then, they need to be discarded properly in the corresponding area designed for this. This also means they shouldn’t be shared among colleagues to prevent contamination. Likewise, handling the mask by the ear-loops or head-straps is always recommended to avoid contamination, always avoiding touching the inside or outside of the facepiece. Also, washing the hands before and after handling the mask is always recommended. This includes putting the mask on, adjusting it, or taking it off. Once the mask becomes damaged or wet, or if it becomes difficult to breathe with the mask on, it must be properly removed and discarded.
As we mentioned before, they perform protection on the wearer mainly through offering a physical barrier to the wearer’s face, particularly their mucous membranes. This is important because healthcare providers perform procedures in which there’s a high risk of potentially contaminated fluids being released, including surgical, medical, and dental procedures. When these fluids are in contact with the mucous membranes, diseases can be spread and the worker might become infected.
Surgical masks also offer a filtering activity, but this function is limited compared to the filtration efficacy of N95 masks. The latter can filter out airborne particles, which are those with a size of 0.3 micrometers, like dust, smoke, and viruses like the flu. Surgical masks, on the other hand, can only filter out larger particles, meaning they’re not particularly useful for antiviral purposes. Additionally, surgical masks are loose-fitting, allowing leakage of unfiltered air, unlike N95 masks which are required to form a seal around the mouth and nose to work properly. For virus protection in the healthcare field during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) always recommends N95 masks as the first choice. However, shortages of these respirators have been severely affecting the majority of the healthcare centers around the USA, and when these aren’t available, surgical masks can substitute them, as well as KN95 masks.
Both the physical barrier and filtering protection surgical masks offer work in both directions. As we mentioned, these masks are also used in situations where a sterile field must be maintained. For example, in medical or surgical procedures where the wound could get infected, or when treating patients with a compromised immune system, who can develop serious infections by being in contact with usually harmless pathogens that might be released by our mouth or noses. Surgical masks also prevent the respiratory fluids that can be released by the wearer’s mouth and nose from reaching the environment.
Are there different designs for surgical masks?
Surgical masks can’t be made at home, because they need to meet certain requirements and regulations to perform their function in healthcare settings. So, the patterns found online are for reusable cloth masks, and these can’t be called surgical masks or substitute them.
Now that we’ve clarified that, surgical masks don’t come in different designs. Traditionally, they follow the same folded design and can come with either ear-loops or head-straps that tie around the head. The colors of these masks can vary, but they’re traditionally blue and white in healthcare settings.
Medical-grade masks like surgical masks and the N95 respirators, like the 3M N95 masks in popular models like the 3M 8210 and the 3M 8511, should be reserved for their use in healthcare settings. These masks have been scarce in many parts of the world, and are difficult to find for sale online to buy in bulk or wholesale. For this reason, we reiterate the recommendations made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in which they urge the general public to make use of the reusable cloth masks combined with social distancing measures, and this includes kids above the age of 2.