Why doctors are telling their patients to wear N95 masks while travelling

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, people looked at air travel as too risky and even dangerous. Some experts were worried that the SARS-CoV-2 would be easily spread in a flight and cause a surge in COVID-19 cases. 

In March 2020, a Vietnamese passenger flew from London to Hanoi. Fifteen people on the same flight were infected during the ten-hour flight to Hanoi. During this time, not a lot of people have heard of the N95 mask. Only medical professionals and workers that use the N95 mask knew what it was. 

In April 2020, airlines started asking their passengers to wear face masks on the plane. Some airlines made this mandatory. At this point, passengers and crew members began wearing N95 masks or surgical masks. Now the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) strongly recommends that all crew members and passengers put on face masks.

So the question is, do face masks such as the N95 mask really work? Is it safe to fly as long as you are wearing an N95 mask?

Why doctors want patients to wear an N95 mask while traveling

Experts know that the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is limited to about six to eight feet. This means that the risk of catching COVID-19 comes mostly from the people around you.

If a person with flu-like symptoms sits close to you but wears an N95 mask, the respiratory droplets go to the N95 mask when they sneeze. The N95 mask serves as the barrier that protects you. If you are wearing an N95 mask too, your N95 mask will filter 95% of whatever droplets come close to you.

It is also best to assume that everyone on the flight is contagious but not aware of it. Wearing an N95 mask could do two things: protect yourself and protect the people around you should you be infected and contagious. 

While there are surgical and cloth masks available, the filtering capacity of these types of masks could not compare to the N95 mask. You simply want the best N95 mask on the market when you sit on a plane full of strangers. Remember that buying an N95 mask is only half of the story. You also have to make sure that your N95 mask fits well. 

Surgical mask VS N95 mask when traveling

A surgical mask will block moisture. But since it is not completely sealed like the N95 mask, you may still inhale the virus. An N95 mask, on the other hand, is completely sealed and provides excellent protection. However, the N95 mask needs to fit you properly. A fit testing and seal check is mandatory when using an N95 mask as a leaking N95 mask may not provide enough protection from COVID-19. Furthermore, facial hair may affect the effectiveness of the N95 mask. 

Doing a fit test on your N95 mask also allows you to practice wearing it. Additionally, make sure you know how to take the N95 mask off without contaminating your hands. 

Can I wear an N95 mask for long periods of time?

Air travel could be as quick as an hour to a long 12-hour flight. Some people find wearing N95 masks uncomfortable and others are concerned that it is not safe to wear an N95 mask for several hours a day. Doctors say that you can wear your N95 mask for hours without fear of low oxygenation levels. In fact, health professionals wear N95 masks during 12-hour shifts and prove that it is safe to do so.  

Are face masks, such as an N95 mask, essential when traveling?

Researchers are just starting to answer this question, and what they have found out so far gives hope and fresh ideas on how to protect yourself using a surgical, cloth, or N95 mask while on a plane.

The recent evidence comes from Hong Kong where meticulous testing is done on all passengers that arrive in the city. This method allows them to identify passengers that were already infected before boarding the plane and if they infected anyone else on the flight.

Dr. David O. Freedman, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alabama, has been analyzing data obtained from one specific airline: Emirates. Since April 2020, Emirates has been strict in its masking policy and requires all crew members and passengers to wear their surgical, cloth, or N95 masks and keep them on throughout the flight. 

They found out that although seven or more passengers were infected with COVID-19 in five flights, no one else on the plane picked up the virus. These five flights were considered high risk, yet there was no transmission.

Data shows that surgical, cloth, and N95 masks are working. Rigid masking appears to lower your risk of acquiring COVID-19 on a flight. So long as the N95 mask has a good seal on your face, it will do its job of filtering 95% of airborne particles, including the SARS-CoV-2. 

Other ways to keep yourself safe while traveling

Keeping yourself safe from COVID-19 does not stop at wearing an N95 mask. There are other interventions that will also protect you from this disease. 

  • Since the N95 mask does not protect the eyes, you may want to wear goggles or a face shield. 
  • Do not forget to disinfect surfaces including your seat, armrest, tray tables, and those that surround it. Bring a hand sanitizer or bleach wipes and disinfect surfaces regularly during the flight. 
  • Avoid touching your face. 
  • Avoid talking when possible or keep it to a minimum. You emit 10 times more droplets when you talk.
  • Never forget to practice social distancing from the moment you step out of your home. 
  • Stay fit and adopt a healthy lifestyle. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a pandemic or not. Taking care of one’s body is essential to preventing all sorts of diseases, including COVID-19.

The CDC recommends air travel only for essential and urgent reasons. If you find yourself needing to travel, make sure your N95 mask is ready. Choose your N95 mask in advance and take time to do a fit check. Check that it fits nicely and there are no air leaks. Pick the right brand, model, and size for your N95 mask, and have peace of mind while traveling. There's a good reason your doctor wants you to use an N95 mask and it’s best to follow their instructions.

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