Explaining what surgical masks are
Right now, surgical masks are considered one of the most popular types of disposable face masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re intended to be used in healthcare settings, and therefore are specifically designed and regulated for this use. These settings include surgical, medical, and dental procedures, which is why they’re also known as medical or dental masks. We were used to only seeing them being worn by healthcare providers, but they have become a staple during the pandemic.
The protective effects of these masks come from their function as a physical barrier that separates the wearer’s mouth and nose from the environment. This protects the wearer from the potentially infected fluids that might be released in the form of droplets, aerosols, or splashes, during certain procedures. A lot of diseases are transmitted when contaminated fluids containing a certain pathogen are in contact with the mucous membranes of an uninfected person, and these masks prevent this.
Surgical masks are also filters, but unlike N95 masks, these can’t filter out small particles. N95 respirators can filter out particles with a size as small as 0.3 micrometers, which are considered airborne. This means N95 masks can protect against dust, smoke, pollen, and viruses like the flu. Surgical masks, on the other hand, don’t have high antiviral properties, which is why N95 respirators are the preferred choice for virus protection in the healthcare setting during the pandemic.
Another difference between surgical masks and N95 respirators is that the first are loose-fitting, which means unfiltered air can leak and be inhaled and exhaled. N95 masks, on the other hand, are required to fit very tightly around the face to form a seal with the wearer’s skin, to prevent any leakages from happening. This is why N95 masks are also considered much more uncomfortable than surgical masks.
What does a surgical mask feel like on the face?
One of the ongoing topics of discussion during this year is whether or not masks can be used for prolonged periods since many people are worried they might cause difficulty breathing. The truth is, these masks can be used with no problem by people and there’s no evidence that they cause breathing problems (this does not include certain people with medical conditions who can experience these problems with any type of face mask).
For example, one lung specialist based in Canada, Christopher Ewing, has explained that the levels of oxygen don’t decrease and the levels of carbon dioxide don’t increase as a result of wearing a surgical mask. He saw how his pediatric asthma and cystic fibrosis patients would wear their face masks in public settings with no consequence.
But, Ewing does acknowledge that face masks can be the source of difficulty breathing in people with no pre-existing conditions, although the causes are more psychological than anything else. According to him, “most of us aren't used to wearing face masks, and the sensation of having a mask on your face might make someone anxious or uncomfortable. Although much of our breathing is unconscious and driven by our respiratory center, it can also be influenced by the mind. When we're feeling discomfort, even subconsciously, it can change the way we breathe.”
This example can help illustrate Ewing’s point: when we wear glasses, they can fog up when we exhale with a face mask on, so to avoid this, we don’t exhale fully. We subconsciously start changing our breathing patterns and developing an abnormal one.
When we get anxious because we feel uncomfortable or claustrophobic with a mask on, we tend to hyperventilate, which means we start breathing more quickly. This leads to releasing more carbon dioxide and results in the blood levels decreasing, developing symptoms like lightheadedness and sometimes even fainting. On the other hand, we tend to hyperventilate, which is breathing more slowly, to avoid uncomfortable situations like our glasses getting fogged up. This causes our bodies to start accumulating carbon dioxide and to not get enough oxygen, making people feel what is known as “air hungry”: the feeling of not getting enough air that leads to anxiety and panic attacks.
Ewing says that it’s important to learn how to breathe with a face mask on since it will likely become our new reality. There are powerful strategies used to override the abnormal sleeping patterns we tend to get ourselves into. One of the strategies Ewing mentions is the “box breathing” one, in which the person visualizes a box while they trace the outlines in their mind. Following the lines, they inhale for four seconds, pause, exhale, and pause again.
The bottom line is that, according to this expert in lungs and respiratory conditions in kids, wearing either reusable or disposable face masks is safe as long as the user doesn’t have any pre-existing conditions like heart or respiratory problems that could lead to real problems with breathing and oxygenation, is a safe practice. Most of the symptoms we experience with face-coverings result from anxiety and discomfort, and the techniques mentioned by him can help us cope with this new normality.
We would like to end this informative article by recommending our readers to always choose reusable cloth masks over medical-grade ones, including the N95 masks like the 3M N95 masks in the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511 models, KN95 masks, and surgical masks, since these are critical items in the protection equipment for healthcare providers. These, along with other items like gloves, gowns, and face shields, have been scarce and are very difficult to find for sale online available to buy in bulk and wholesale, so they need to be reserved for the workers at the frontlines.