How Much Protection Do Surgical Masks Offer against Coronavirus?

Updated on November 9, 2020

Everyday new information on Covid-19, how it spreads, and the best ways to protect oneself against getting infected or re-infected emerges. At present, the most effective methods of protection against the novel coronavirus include washing hands regularly with soap and water and maintaining physical distancing. 

However, physical distancing cannot always be observed in some cases such as at the grocery store or while using public commuter transportation. 

In such situations, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have recommended the use of face masks in public to help provide better protection against the mass spread of Covid-19.

What Benefits Do Face Masks Provide

Airborne spread of communicable respiratory diseases usually involves the release of virus-containing aerosols and droplets during various activities such as breathing, talking, coughing, or sneezing. 

The transmission of pathogens in discharged droplets and aerosols may happen through physical contact after lodging on surfaces, for example, the mouth and eyes, or through direct inhalation of bacteria-laden aerosols by vulnerable persons. 

Thus as a preventative measure, the use of masks has been proposed as a means to ease the transmission of Covid-19. Ample research has pointed out that masks can provide substantial protection to the wearer, granted that the wearer properly fits their mask as this function dictates the efficiency of the face covering. 

Masks also possibly decrease the chances of external transmission by infected persons which in turn, protects others. There has been an almost unanimous call worldwide for governments to mandate face mask use by the general population to help lessen the likelihood of disease transmission during the epidemic. 

The number of infected people keeps rising every day and the pandemic doesn’t look like it will end any time soon. To avoid taking strict measures such as lockdowns, most governments are making it mandatory for people to wear face masks in public areas. 

There are legitimately two kinds of protective masks that guard us against such viruses: the surgical masks and the respirators. We shall be looking into the effectiveness of a surgical mask in protecting one from contracting the coronavirus.

What Is a Surgical Mask

A surgical mask, also known as a medical mask, is a loose-fitting and disposable face covering.  Surgical masks protect the nose and mouth of the wearer from coming into direct contact with droplets that could be carrying pathogens. 

They are designed to protect the wearer from getting into contact with droplets of saliva that could go into your body through the nose or mouth. Their design also allows them to prevent the wearer from releasing aerosols from the upper respiratory tract and into the external environment. 

Surgical masks are made with filters that help to sieve out large particles in the air. It should be said that surgical masks are single-use only and should not be worn for extended periods (more than three to eight hours). Below is a detailed breakdown of the composition of surgical masks.

What Is a Surgical Made Of

A surgical mask consists of three layers; a filter layer made of a melt-blown polymer, positioned between two non-woven fabric layers. 

The filter in the middle is what prevents the microbes from leaving the mask. It acts as an electrostatic block so the particles are essentially trapped by electrostatic action. When a microparticle such as SARS-CoV-2 passes through the masks, it latches on to the fiber permanently. 

Surgical masks can have different shapes. It can either be a molded shell or a pleated mask which is most often three parallel folds that can unfold. A duck beak shape is also available, which allows the lips to be held a tad separately. 

To increase the efficacy of the mask and the quality of the fit to the face, an internal nasal bar with a high and amendable border is usually included in the design of certain surgical masks. This also serves to decrease fogging on glasses.

Who Should Wear a Surgical Mask

The truth is everyone should be wearing a surgical face mask or any form of face covering for that matter. Masks are not only meant for people who have been infected with the coronavirus. Research has shown that some people are asymptomatic meaning they are positive but show no signs of infection. 

A surgical mask can also shield the wearer from the hazard of splashes of biological fluids. In this instance, the surgical mask must have an impermeable layer. It can also be combined with a visor or face shield to shield the eyes.

Generally, You should wear a surgical mask if:

  • You are infected with the virus.
  • You are a primary caregiver of an infected person.
  • You are a health worker.
  • You come into regular contact with infected people for any purpose.

Do Surgical Masks Protect Against COVID-19

A surgical mask does not fully keep one against “airborne” communicable agents so it will not stop the wearer from being potentially infected by a virus such as a coronavirus. However, according to experts, if the general population whether infected or not, wears a surgical mask and zealously follows hygiene and social distancing measures, it could be promising to decrease the probability of transmission of the virus.

Surgical masks can therefore play a limited role in preventing the infection. A surgical mask is not the perfect solution for safeguarding from the new coronavirus for the following reasons:

  • A surgical mask does not give proper coverage over the nose and mouth and is ill-fitting.
  • It is not possible to prevent airborne virus infections.
  • It is extremely difficult and next to impossible to keep a surgical mask on for long periods.
  • When one touches the surgical mask, they lose the protection and must dispose of and replace the mask safely.

It is critical that caregivers dispose of the surgical masks after every contact and use a fresh one any time they are in close limits with infected persons.

The Right Mask for the Job

Experts and researchers have insisted that wearing face masks in public can help prevent people with COVID-19 from unintentionally passing along the virus. There is however no conclusive evidence as to the total effectiveness of wearing masks. They also reiterate that wearing masks is not the chief protection against the contraction of the coronavirus.

Surgical masks are clearly more effective as a “source control” as they can stop bigger ejected droplets from evaporating into tiny droplets that can travel farther. It is therefore imperative that we understand the effectiveness of surgical masks in decreasing outward transmission of aerosols and droplets from our natural respiratory functions.

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