Surgical masks can help stop COVID-19 from spreading if coupled with social distancing and frequent handwashing. The pandemic has made surgical masks and N95 masks very popular among healthcare workers and even members of the public.
Before using a surgical mask, you should know what it does and how to use one properly. You should also know when to wear a surgical mask and when to discard it.
What is a surgical mask?
A surgical mask is a type of loose-fitting, disposable face mask that serves as a barrier between the wearer and the environment. A surgical mask traps respiratory droplets emitted by the wearer when talking, coughing, or sneezing and protects those nearby. When worn correctly, it also protects the user from large respiratory droplets, splashes, and sprays that may carry viruses and bacteria. Without a face mask, these droplets may reach the nose and mouth.
A surgical mask is fluid-resistant and comes in different thicknesses. The thickness and fluid resistance of a surgical mask affect its breathability as well as its efficiency.
While a surgical mask effectively blocks large droplets, splashes, and sprays, it does not filter out small airborne particles. Similarly, a surgical mask does not offer total protection from other microorganisms as it has a loose fit.
When to use a surgical mask
A surgical mask should be worn when you are not feeling well and you will be around other people. It will protect the people around you and prevent them from catching your illness.
Although the general public is advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to use cloth masks, you may also wear a surgical mask to protect yourself from the virus when heading out to public places.
How to put on a surgical mask
The efficiency of a surgical mask greatly depends on the proper handling of the mask. A surgical mask should be used only once. Before using a surgical mask, read the manufacturer’s instructions on proper use and storage. If instructions are not available, you can follow these steps.
- Wash your hands with soap and water or a hand sanitizer before handling the surgical mask.
- Get a surgical mask from the box. Check for any obvious holes or tears. Do not use a damaged surgical mask.
- Identify the part of the surgical mask that should be on top. The flexible edge is placed on top of your nose bridge and is designed to mold to the shape of the nose.
- Identify which side should be in front. The colored part is normally the front of the surgical mask.
- Hold the surgical mask by the ear loops and put a loop around each ear.
- Mold the flexible edge to the shape of your nose.
- Pull the bottom of the surgical mask so that it covers your mouth and chin.
- Wash your hands with soap and water or clean with an alcohol sanitizer.
How to remove a surgical mask
- Before removing a surgical mask, wash your hands with soap and water or clean with an alcohol-based sanitizer.
- Do not touch the front of the surgical mask because it is contaminated. Handle the surgical mask by touching the ear loops.
- Hold and gently lift the ear loops. Remove the surgical mask.
- Throw the surgical mask in the trash bin. Clean your hands immediately after.
When to discard a surgical mask
Surgical masks are meant to be worn only once and discarded after use. Do not wear a used mask as it could be contaminated. Furthermore, you should not use a damaged surgical mask. A mask that has holes or tears is no longer efficient and must be discarded. Similarly, a surgical mask that is visibly soiled should be thrown away too. Finally, a surgical mask that has become moist should be replaced with a new one.
Should you fix a surgical mask if it is damaged?
It can be tempting to fix a surgical mask especially if all you see is a small hole. However, the best thing to do is to discard the surgical mask immediately. A hole, tear, or any other damage affects the integrity of the mask and makes it less effective. Worse, it could give you the false assurance that you are protected, yet the truth is respiratory droplets are able to pass through the hole and tears in your surgical mask.
Surgical mask alternatives
Aside from surgical masks, you may also use cloth masks that have two layers or more of breathable fabric. Choose a washable material so you can reuse your mask. An effective cloth mask completely covers your nose and mouth and fits snugly on the sides of your face without any gaps.
Stay away from cloth masks that are made of vinyl and other hard-to-breath materials. Do not use cloth masks that have exhalation vents or valves as the virus may escape through them.
The N95 mask is also a good alternative to a surgical mask. However, it is best reserved for healthcare workers who use N95 masks on a daily basis while looking after suspected and confirmed COVID-19 patients.
How you handle your face mask is as important as wearing one. Make sure that your surgical mask is free of any damages before using it. Remember that your surgical mask plays an important role in protecting you and those around you from COVID-19. Do not risk using a damaged mask as this may endanger lives.