Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID 19) began in China in 2019. Since then, this disease has spread to 209 countries and territories and has infected 1,518,927 people (Know the live status here). It was declared a pandemic in March 2020 by the WHO.
Data shows that this deadly disease spreads from person to person when they are in close contact (within 6 feet). This virus spreads through respiratory droplets when someone who is infected coughs, sneezes, and even talks.
During the first few months of the spread of coronavirus, the WHO advised that healthy people need not wear masks and that these should be reserved only for healthcare workers, patients, and those who are in contact with the patients. The CDC has lately changed its recommendations and is now advising all Americans to wear face cloth coverings in public.
Recent studies have also shown that asymptomatic people can transmit this virus and that wearing masks can reduce the number of viral particles released (1). Read on to learn about different types of masks, how to wear them properly and effectively.
Types of face masks
Three different types of covers can be used to protect you from COVID-19 –
1. N95 Respirators
An N95 respirator is a tight-fitting respiratory protective device that efficiently filters out airborne particles. These respirators are subjected to careful testing, and they can block at least 95 percent of microscopic particles like viruses and bacteria.
These respirators are oval and are designed to fit tightly on your face. They must be properly fitted for them to be effective. They should be fit tested to ensure that a proper seal is formed. The wearer should also do a seal check every time he puts on this mask. This seal will not be formed with children and people with facial hair.
Even a properly fitted N95 mask does not eliminate the risk of illness.
The CDC doesn’t recommend the use of N95 respirators for protection from COVID-19 for all. These are critical supplies that should be reserved for use by health workers and first responders.
2. Surgical masks
A surgical mask is a disposable mask that can protect you against agents transmitted by droplets. These droplets can come from the saliva or the secretions from the upper respiratory tract when the wearer exhales. You should not wear this mask for more than eight hours.
If a contagious patient wears this mask, it prevents him from contaminating his surroundings and the environment. When a caregiver wears this mask, it helps by protecting the patient and the environment around it. The surgical mask also protects the caregiver from splashes of biological fluid.
For this, the surgical mask should also have a waterproof layer. Unfortunately, a surgical mask does not protect the wearer from airborne infectious agents. So, you can still be infected with COVID-19 if you wear a surgical mask.
3. Homemade cloth masks
The CDC recommends the use of homemade face covering to slow the spread of COVID-19. According to the CDC, the face-covering should include multiple layers of fabric, should fit snugly against the side of the face, and should be secured with ties. You should make it with a fabric that allows breathing without restriction, and it should retain its shape after washing.
You should wear these homemade face masks in social settings like grocery stores and pharmacies, where it is difficult to maintain social distancing. Children under the age of two and people with breathing difficulties should not wear homemade cloth masks. You should also not put these masks on people who are unconscious, incapacitated, or unable to remove this mask without assistance.
How effective are these masks?
According to a 2008 study, all masks provide some degree of protection against transmission by reducing exposure for both adults and children. Surgical masks provide twice the amount of protection as homemade masks. The N95 respirators offer 25 times more protection as compared to surgical masks and 50 times more protection as compared to homemade masks (2).
1. Homemade masks
There is some benefit in wearing homemade masks in public places like supermarkets and grocery shops, as compared to wearing no mask at all. A 2013 study from the UK examined the effectiveness of homemade masks as compared to commercial face masks. While both masks reduced the number of microorganisms expelled, the surgical mask was three times more effective in blocking transmission (3).
Reports show that this virus can live in droplets in the air for three hours. When an infected person covers his face, he can prevent the droplets from getting into the air and infecting others. According to the American Lung Association, 25% of COVID-19 patients show mild or no symptoms at all. Using a homemade face mask can block particles when you cough or sneeze. These masks may not protect the wearer too much, but they prevent unintentional transmission from an asymptomatic carrier.
2. Surgical masks
Surgical masks cannot adequately protect against the COVID-19 virus. According to a study from South Korea, neither cloth masks nor surgical masks can effectively filter SARS-CoV-2 during coughs by infected patients (4).
The size and concentration of SARS-CoV-2 in the air generated during coughing is not known. Earlier studies have shown that particles 0.04 to 0.2 μm can penetrate surgical masks. The size of the SARS-CoV particle from the 2002-2004 outbreak was 0.08 to 0.14 μm. If SARS-CoV-2 has a similar size, it will be able to penetrate the surgical mask. Since surgical masks are loose-fitting, air leakage can also occur from the sides of the mask.
3. N95 Respirators
N95 respirators are effective in protecting against SARS-CoV-2. The N95 masks are subjected to careful testing, and they can block 95 percent of .3 micron particles.
You have to wear these masks properly for them to be effective. Specialists get training on how to use these masks and fit them on their nose, cheeks, and chin properly to avoid any leakage. These respirators are made up of thick material, and it is hard work to breathe in and out through them.
How to use a mask properly?
According to the WHO, when you use a mask, you must know how to use and dispose of it properly (5). Here are some of the steps that you must follow –
- Clean your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer before you put on your mask.
- When you tie your mask, make sure you cover your mouth and nose adequately. There should be no gaps between your face and the mask.
- You must not touch your mask after you have put it on. Clean your hands thoroughly if you touch your mask.
- If your mask becomes damp, replace it immediately. You should not reuse single-use masks.
- Remove your mask from behind. Do not touch the front of the mask. Discard the mask in a closed bin and wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based sanitizer.
While there’s no guarantee wearing a face mask will not make you sick, face masks can help catch the droplets, which are the main route of transmission of COVID-19. Wear homemade face masks in social settings like grocery stores and pharmacies, where it is difficult to maintain social distancing.
The surgical mask also protects the caregiver from splashes of biological fluid. When worn correctly, N95 respirators can block 95 percent of .3 micron particles. However, the CDC does not recommend the use of N95 respirators for protection as these are critical supplies that should be reserved for use by health workers and first responders.