Surgical masks: a brief explanation about their filtering properties
These face masks act primarily as a physical barrier between the wearer’s face, particularly the mouth and nose, and all the potential pathogens that might be present in the environmental air surrounding them. They can also be called “dental” or “medical” face masks, labeled as dental, medical, or surgical depending on the procedure they’re used for. Like N95 masks, face shields can be placed on top of them for more protection, and to protect the eyes as well.
People often call them also “regular” face masks, but it’s important to point out that surgical face masks are tightly regulated medical supplies, designed to be used in healthcare settings during procedures where maintaining a sterile environment is important. Not any type of face mask can be considered a surgical mask and substitute them, as these are sterile and come with a filter designed to be used in the medical field. These masks can come in varying levels of thickness, translating into varying levels of both protection and breathability.
As we said, these are disposable face masks, which means they can only be used once and should be discarded after that. This also means they can’t be shared among colleagues. If they get damaged or wet, or if the wearer is breathing with difficulty, their face mask should be removed and, in the case they can still wear one, replace it with a different one. Properly sanitizing the hands is recommended both before and after handling the face mask, which must always be done through the ear-loops or headbands, without touching the mask itself to prevent contamination.
Their main function is to act as a physical barrier that prevents microorganisms that can be carried in fluids to make contact with the mucous membranes of the nose or mouth. If that happens, the pathogen starts replicating and colonizing the body, which is the way of transmission for many diseases, including COVID-19. The mask can protect the wearer from fluids in the form of splashes, droplets, splatter, or sprays.
The surgical mask also contains a filter, but it’s only effective for large particles. They can’t filter out small particles like dust, smoke, or viruses, including the new coronavirus or the flu virus, which is a characteristic that sets them apart from N95 masks. This lowers their antiviral properties, making them not the top choice for virus protection during the pandemic. The size of the particles they can filter out is those larger than 0.3 micrometers (300 nanometers), which means they’re not airborne.
Surgical masks are also more loose-fitting than N95 masks, which are required to fit tightly around the face. This prevents leakage of air, making sure all the air that is being inhaled is going through the filter and the wearer isn’t inhaling harmful particles. With surgical masks, the loose fit allows this leakage of air, so their filtering properties aren’t as good as those in N95 masks. For this reason, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t recommend these masks for protection against COVID-19 in settings where exposure is highly possible, like healthcare centers. They do, however, say they can substitute N95 masks, like the 3M N95 masks including 3M 8210 and 3M 8511 models, when these are not available.
The Coronavirus pandemic and why face masks are important right now
The new coronavirus species was first discovered in December of last year, when the first case of the then-unknown disease was reported in China. Now, over nine months later and with every country in the world being affected by this pandemic, we know much more about this potentially deadly virus. It’s part of the coronavirus genus, which are viruses known to infect the respiratory tract of humans and causing mild flu-like illnesses. But, this new species seems to be more serious and has taken many lives this year.
The most common symptoms include dry cough, fever, sore throat, muscle pain, and some people report the loss of taste and smell too. While most cases are either mild or asymptomatic, a considerable size of percentage of cases leads to severe health conditions. The most vulnerable people to the virus include older people, immunocompromised patients, people with common comorbidities like diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary diseases, and organ failure of any kind.
In these people, COVID-19 is much more severe and can affect the lungs so much that the person needs a mechanical ventilator to oxygenate their body properly. Some common complications include also thrombosis and multi-organ failure, as the virus can affect other organs too. In many of these cases, the virus can cause the death of the person, as we have seen all over the world and the United States.
Even though most cases are very mild, and younger people and kids don’t tend to be severely affected by this virus, it’s everyone’s responsibility to stop the spread of the disease. It has been proven that wearing a face mask of any kind in public around people outside your household significantly decreases the spread of this virus, which is why this is the best way everyone can help the most vulnerable people in their communities, as well as the healthcare workers who are fighting the virus on the frontlines of the pandemic.
The USA needs its citizens to step up and protect those around them. The CDC recommends reusable cloth masks for the general public which you can find for sale online and available to buy in bulk or wholesale. Remember that anyone who uses a face-covering is helping their community face this difficult time.