When could you wear masks with vents?

Around the world, including the United States, one of the most popular items throughout the 10 months we’ve been living with the COVID-19 pandemic have been face masks. Many people were confused at first as to which type of mask was the correct one to wear for protection against this virus, and it’s a topic that has been widely discussed online and on the news.

People began to buy all types of face masks in bulk and wholesale as soon as the pandemic was announced, including other medical supplies and equipment they would find for sale. However, the N95 mask has been one of the most popular ones, and they’re actually very difficult to find at the moment.

A lot of people have been seen wearing masks and respirators with valves or vents, being very popular items. However, many of them don’t exactly know how they work and what they’re used for. So, today, we’ll talk about what vents are for, how they work, and when it’s safe to use them.

Let’s start by understanding how COVID-19 is transmitted

This disease is caused by a respiratory virus, and it predominantly affects the respiratory tract and the lungs. The severity of the disease can range from asymptomatic cases to extremely severe and life-threatening ones. However, most cases are either mild, resembling the flu, with common symptoms being fever, muscle pain, sore throat, and dry cough. A lot of cases are also asymptomatic, and people can still spread the disease without knowing it.

Severe cases, although represent the minority, start to cause concern when large groups of people are getting infected at the same time. Even though compared to the mild and asymptomatic cases the size of the percentage of severe cases is small, in these situations they can be enough to surpass the capacity of many healthcare centers. This way, we’ve seen many facilities around the world and in the USA collapse after not being able to take care of everyone.

The spread of the virus happens when an infected person releases respiratory droplets into the environment, which happens when they sneeze, cough, talk, or breathe. The droplets contain the viral particles, and when they reach the respiratory tract of an uninfected person, the virus replicates and colonizes their airways, damaging them in the process.  

The release of these droplets can be prevented by wearing face-coverings, and it’s important for everyone to wear one whether they feel ill or not. Whether it’s a disposable face mask like the N95 respirator, a KN95 mask, a surgical mask, or a reusable one like the cloth masks, with or without face shields, everyone, including kids over the age of 2, should wear a mask in public.

How do vents work and what do they do?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explain that these vents, also known as exhalation valves, have the function of reducing the breathing resistance of respirators. This makes them more breathable and comfortable to wear, as well as making them feel cooler and reducing the moisture build-up that results in fogging eyewear. All these benefits are great for long work shifts where respirators are necessary, but the vents are not safe for certain environments.

A regular N95 mask, like 3M N95 mask models 3M 8210 and 3M 1860, filters out both the inhaled and the exhaled air. This ensures protection not only for the person wearing the mask, but also for the people around them, and it’s particularly important for protection against certain microorganisms.

N95 respirators with exhalation valves or vents, which are also known as one-way valves because they filter out the air that is being inhaled but not the one that is exhaled, only protect the wearer but not the people around them. An example is the 3M 8511 model. For this reason, these devices are not recommended for environments where sterile fields need to be maintained, like healthcare settings.

Are they safe for COVID-19 protection?

These masks are not the best options for virus protection, since the antiviral filtering properties are limited to only the inhaled air. For this reason, their uses don’t include the protection against the SARS-CoV-2. A person that is infected with COVID-19 and doesn’t know it might be spreading it very easily thinking they’re being safe in a public place.

The CDC doesn’t recommend these respirators in healthcare environments, including not only those in which COVID-19 protection is necessary, but also where a sterile field is necessary too, like surgeries or when treating immunocompromised patients that can develop serious infections from usually harmless microorganisms.

When can they be used instead?

The benefits of exhalation valves can be enjoyed in situations when the mask is only meant to protect the wearer and not everyone around them. For example, dust and smoke are respiratory hazards from which respirators only protect against by filtering out the inhaled air. Obviously, a person is not going to exhale dust or smoke particles, so it’s not necessary to filter out the exhaled air.

So, in working environments in which the only respiratory hazard is one a person can’t exhale, that is, not a microorganism, masks with vents could be useful to make the mask-wearing experience more comfortable. However, since the pandemic began, it’s important to consider that every public environment has the risk of spreading COVID-19.

This means that, in our current situation, masks with vents shouldn’t be used in any setting to make sure COVID-19 is not being spread.

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