What are surgical masks?

One of the main topics of conversation this year has been medical supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE). This all due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a disease caused by a new species of coronavirus that was first reported in December of last year. The coronaviruses have been infecting the human respiratory tract for years, but these infections were usually very mild. Now, this new species seems to be more severe than the other coronaviruses, leading to very serious complications, and it can even be lethal.

In the United States, the shortages of medical supplies have been devastating for many healthcare centers, and the new surge in COVID-19 cases seems to be the start of a new wave of these shortages. This has been the source of concern for many experts around the world, where we have already seen the devastating effects of the scarcity of protective gear in healthcare providers.

Face masks have been, without a doubt, the scarcest item, as they have been the most powerful way to protect a person from getting infected. At the beginning of the year, many people started to buy them in bulk and wholesale, but now many medical supplies are difficult to find for sale online. N95 masks, in particular, have been difficult to obtain, since they’ve been considered the best disposable face mask for virus protection, and have been reserved for healthcare workers.

In this article, however, we’ll focus on surgical masks, what they are, who wears them, and why they’re so important.

All about surgical masks

These are disposable face masks that protect the wearer by creating a physical barrier between their mouth and nose and the environment they’re exposed to, where harmful particles and pathogens can be found. These masks are usually called medical or dental masks as well, and they need to be labeled as either surgical, medical, or dental depending on the type of procedure they’re intended to be used in. Similar to N95 respirators, these are masks that are often paired with some type of eye protection gear, like face shields or goggles.

Some people call surgical masks “regular” masks, but it’s important to point out that not any regular face mask can be used in the situations surgical masks are used since these are masks specifically manufactured and tightly regulated for their uses in healthcare settings where there’s a sterile field and it must be maintained. For this, they need to meet certain requirements and qualifications, so not any type of face mask can substitute them. They can vary in their level of protection and breathability based on the thickness of the mask.

Like N95 masks, they’re disposable face masks, and this means they are designed for single-use, and then they have to be discarded properly. This also means they can’t be shared among colleagues. Like all disposable masks, they must be removed and properly discarded as soon as they become damaged or wet, but they can also be removed if the wearer starts experiencing any difficulty breathing with the mask on.

To decrease the risk of contamination in both directions, washing the hands before and after handling the mask, whether it’s to put it on, adjust it, or take it off, it’s recommended to wash the hands. Handling the mask should always be done by the ear-loops or head straps, avoiding touching the inside or outside of the facepiece as much as possible.

As we said, their main protective function is to act as a physical barrier that prevents the wearer’s mouth and nose from being in contact with potentially infected fluids that can be released during certain procedures in the form of droplets, sprays, splashes, or splatter. Many diseases are spread when the pathogens contained in infected fluids reach the mucous membranes of a healthy person, which is why healthcare providers wear surgical masks during certain medical procedures.

These masks also have filter activity, but compared to N95 masks, this activity is limited. They can’t filter out airborne particles like dust, smoke, or viruses like the flu or the coronavirus. They can only filter out particles with a larger size, so this means they don’t have many antiviral properties. They also have a much looser fit compared to N95 respirators, which have to fit tightly around the face. This means surgical masks allow space for unfiltered air leakage, which means the wearer can breathe unfiltered air. This is why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend these masks for protection against COVID-19 in situations of high exposure, like the healthcare field. But, they can substitute N95 masks in moments where these aren’t available.

The protection offered by surgical masks work in both directions, as they also prevent the wearer from releasing their fluids from their mouth and nose into the environment. This is important for situations in which they’re working in sterile fields, to prevent contamination. For example, this prevents wound infection, or when treating immunocompromised patients, this avoids potentially severe infections in them.

Now that you know what surgical masks are, how they work, and who should wear them, you can understand this is a critical supply in the healthcare field. As we mentioned in the beginning, the USA is suffering from devastating shortages of medical supplies, including surgical masks, KN95 masks, and 3M N95 masks in the 3M 8210 and 3M 811 models. 

This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the general public to wear reusable cloth masks in public settings, combined with social distancing and hygiene measures. This includes kids over the age of 2 years old. This way, critical supplies can be reserved for healthcare centers that need them during the pandemic.

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