What are N95 masks?
N95 masks are a type of face mask used predominantly in the healthcare field during the pandemic, although they can have many other uses. They’re used for respiratory protection against airborne particles, which are very small particles with a size of 0.3 micrometers. They’re effective for non-oil-based airborne particles, such as smoke, dust, pollen, or viruses like the flu or the new coronavirus, and these antiviral properties have made them a popular item during the pandemic.
Approval from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is necessary for all N95 masks before they’re sold and marketed as such in the United States. The institution tests them out first and makes sure they perform as an N95 mask should.
To work correctly, N95 respirators must have a tight fit around the face to prevent any air leakage from happening. This is why every workplace usually performs fit tests on their workers to make sure the respirators they’ll be using will protect them correctly. This is also why these masks are not marketed to be used by kids, and shouldn’t be used when there’s facial hair, as this will affect the fit of the respirator.
Since they’re used as personal protective equipment in the workplace, sometimes they have to be used for prolonged work shifts of 8 to 12 hours, particularly in healthcare settings. This also means that in places like construction or mining sites, the temperatures can be very high. All of this, combined with the very tight fit of the mask, can make wearing them very uncomfortable.
Some N95 masks contain exhalation valves to make them feel cooler and more comfortable for breathing. However, these valves make them unsuitable for virus protection or other uses in the healthcare field, as they don’t filter out the exhaled air. The 3M N95 masks in the model 3M 8511 have exhalation valves, while the 3M 8210 and 1860 models don’t.
High temperatures and face masks: does it affect the body?
In many parts of the USA, the winter doesn’t necessarily equate to lower temperatures. States like California or Arizona are known for their extremely high temperatures, which don’t drop too much during the holidays. Now, with the necessary use of face masks, temperatures become much more suffocating, but does that mean you don’t have to wear a face mask?
Many people have been wondering whether or not it’s even safe to wear face masks when the heat seems unbearable. Dr. Ryan McCorkle, an emergency medical physician, says that it’s completely safe to wear a mask even when the temperatures are very high. According to him, the danger of not wearing a mask is much higher than the one from wearing it in the heat.
Dr. McCorkle explains that the anxiety discomfort many people feel when wearing a mask in the heat is completely natural and normal. The masks are covering their airway, and this can lead to the sensation of being suffocated. But, as he explains, this is all mental and the mask is in fact not impeding the wearer from breathing.
He explains that the anxiety is triggered by the feeling of being closed in by the mask, but the truth is carbon dioxide is not being retained and gas exchange is being done completely normally. This is, of course, in the case a person doesn’t have a pre-existing condition that affects their breathing or respiratory function.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated many times since the pandemic began that wearing a mask doesn’t cause an oxygen deficiency, even if wearing one feels uncomfortable. To make this experience more bearable, some strategies are recommended by the organization. For example, making sure it fits properly, not reusing disposable face masks, and changing them as soon as they become damp.
Additionally, wearing a face mask while exercising is not recommended, since sweat can make the masks wet very quickly, promoting the growth of microorganisms and making it harder to breathe, according to the WHO. For this reason, they recommend exercising without masks in a place where they’re at least 6 feet apart from other people.
In states like Texas, where heat is something residents have to endure all year long, the use of face masks is highly encouraged by the state’s leaders. For example, the City of Austin’s guidelines say that residents are not required to wear a face mask only if "doing so poses a greater mental or physical health, safety or security risk, such as anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the cover without assistance." However, individuals are required to wear masks outside when social distancing is not possible in a consistent way.
According to Dr. McCorkle, who works in Texas, the emergency department hasn’t received heat-related illnesses caused by mask-wearing specifically. But, people need to be careful in the heat in general, not only when they’re wearing masks. Wearing loose-fitting and light-colored clothing outdoors and hydrating consistently are key factors to prevent any heat-related emergencies. Looking for shade, wearing sunscreen, and finding air-conditioned rooms are some other tips to be comfortable and safe in the heat, with or without face masks.
N95 masks and other medical supplies, including surgical masks, KN95 masks, face shields, gloves, and gowns, are necessary in healthcare centers that are needing to buy them in bulk or wholesale. However, they’ve been very difficult to find for sale online, which has led to healthcare personnel working unprotected. To make sure these supplies are reaching these centers, the general public is urged to wear reusable cloth masks for protection.