Surgical Face Masks: Do They Really Protect You from Diseases?

If someone’s wearing a surgical face mask with the white facing out, they’re not sick; they’re trying to protect themselves from menacing micro-organisms. The blue facing out means they’re sick and trying to filter out micro-organisms in an effort to prevent spreading an infection
Photo by Tore F on Unsplash

People didn’t always use — or believe — in surgical masks.

A hundred years ago, surgical masks were limited to surgeons in the operating theater. Medical practitioners in the 1800s covered their mouths and noses to prevent contaminating wounds and medical equipment. But when the 1918 influenza pandemic spread across the world and affected about 500 million people, people began to rely on these small scraps of fabric to protect themselves from the deadly disease.

Fast forward to today, people still wear masks to shield themselves from common infections. But there are still a handful of people who question the efficacy of surgical masks.

So the question remains: do face masks really protect you? Or are they futile in keeping diseases at bay?

As a Courtesy: Wear a Face Mask When You’re Sick

Photo by twinsfinsch on Unsplash

Just like the original purpose of the surgical mask, you should wear one to prevent spreading your viral infection to the people around you.

When you cough or sneeze, airborne viruses remain suspended in the air and enter the body of an unsuspecting victim, usually through his or her mouth or noise. Wearing a mask prevents harmful particles from being released into the air and harming other people.

A 2013 study published in the journal PLOS Pathogens revealed that surgical masks can reduce the virus particles in the air around patients with the flu. Researchers discovered that masks decreased the exhalation of large viral droplets by 25-fold and fine viral droplets by 2.8-fold.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encourages the use of surgical masks to prevent the spread of the flu. According to the website, infectious patients must wear a mask every time they leave the isolation room.

As Protection: Wear a Face Mask if People Around You are Sick

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Surgical masks work for healthy people, too. The air around an infected person contains tiny, infectious particles that can easily penetrate your body. So, by wearing a mask, you offer no entrance to possibly harmful airborne viruses.

If you’re in frequent contact with someone who’s sick, a surgical mask can guard you, just as well as a respirator, which is a more high-tech protective garb.

In a 2009 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers observed the extent of protection offered by surgical masks vis-à-vis an N95 respirator. They divided nurses — the study participants — into two groups: one would wear surgical masks, the other N95 respirators.

During the study, only 23.6 percent of surgical mask wearers acquired the infection, while 22.9 percent of respirator wearers did. Masks are almost as effective, if not as effective, as N95 respirators.

The CDC also mandates healthcare personnel to wear surgical masks (or a fit-tested respirator) if they come within 6 feet of a suspected influenza patient. The Department of Health (DOH) also strongly recommends wearing medical masks to avoid contacting the avian influenza virus.

A mask’s protection extends beyond airborne viruses.

If not by inhaling infectious particles, you can get the flu by touching a surface with the virus and then, touching your mouth or nose. People touch their faces multiple times a day without realizing it. You touch your face up to 23 times an hour, potentially transmitting the virus from a dirty surface to your mouth.

By providing a barrier between your hands and your mouth and nose, surgical masks can protect you from acquiring the infection.

How to Wear a Surgical Mask the Right Way

If you’re stocking up on protective gear, surgical masks are easy to find. You can get them from your local drugstore. You could also order online — here are a few selections from Watson’s and Philippine Medical Supplies.

Masks should only be worn for a maximum of 8 hours, after which they go straight to the trash bin. Ideally, you replace your mask once they get moist. You don’t want infectious particles hanging out around your nose and mouth.

To wear a mask properly:

  1. Wash your hands – Even though you only held the mask by the earloops, you still have to wash your hands. You’ll be holding a fresh mask, after all.
  2. Use the right side of the mask – If you’re sick, the blue should be facing out. If you’re not and everyone else is, the white should be facing out.
  3. Cover the right parts – When putting on a mask, hold it by the earloops. You don’t want the bacteria on your hands to transfer to the fabric and stay near your mouth and nose. Tuck the loops behind your ear and make sure your nose and mouth are completely covered.
  4. Pinch the strip – Pinch the metal strip of the mask, so it takes the shape of your nose bridge. This ensures the area around the nose is sealed off. Don’t touch the fabric of the mask while you’re wearing it.
  5. Dispose the mask – If it has been 8 hours, or if the mask is moist and dirty, hold the mask by the earloops, remove it from your face, and dispose it right away. Never reuse a mask.

Even though masks offer a degree of protection, they aren’t foolproof.

For instance, if you touch an infected surface, then touch your eyes, you can still get sick. Moreover, some airborne infections can still get through the fabric.

So it’s not enough to rely on masks to contain contagious diseases. Whether you’re the patient or near one, always wash your hands, clean your personal space, and try not to touch your face. Also, strengthen your immune system by eating healthy and getting vaccinated.

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