Face Mask: What, how and where?
People with COVID-19 can spread the virus through respiratory droplets when they cough, sneeze, talk, or breathe. They can spread the virus even if they don’t have any symptoms. While there are no face masks that are specifically made to protect against viruses alone, you can still find highly effective masks that can filter viruses and other airborne particles. This deadly disease gets spread: person-to-person and from infected surfaces or objects. The virus is known to mainly spread from one person to another. When the infected person is within 6 feet of healthy person and the person with the disease sneezes or coughs in the healthy person’s direction, tiny droplets of sputum carrying the virus can be inhaled by the healthy person. Although face masks do not fully protect people from getting infected by virus, they do help keep it at bay to some extent. It is still advised that you wear masks when you go to crowded places in your city.
Types of face mask
Face masks are meant to prevent larger droplets and smaller aerosol particles we exhale from spreading; by capturing these particles as they exit our airways when we cough, sneeze or talk. These particles can carry viral load that can survive for hours or even days. Social distancing and good hand hygiene are the most effective approach than wearing a mask. Basic surgical masks and cloth masks provide little protection against airborne particles. As smaller particles can still get through incorrect mask and reusing single-use masks can increase rather than decrease your risk of infection. Therefore, higher-grade medical masks such as N95 respirators are single or limited-use, and need to be fit-tested to work correctly. These are for those who live in prolonged close contact with infected patients. Face coverings are not intended to help the wearer, but to protect against inadvertent transmission of the disease to others if you have it asymptomatically.
If you want to purchase a face mask, it’s best to opt for a reusable handmade cloth one if you can. WHO suggests that most people buy reusable mask or make their own rather than relying on disposable ones. High-filtration respirator masks are limited use and should be left for frontline workers. A homemade cloth mask doesn’t conform to any particular standards so be vigilant. The environmental impact of everyone using disposable surgical masks would also be high, as they are non-recyclable.
Cotton masks: These are simple and lightweight, usually in either pleated or molded design. Look for masks with multiple layers of fabric for additional filtration, or a filter pocket, rather than just one layer.
Synthetic fibres: There are masks from synthetic materials or combinations of different materials to enhance filtration. Polypropylene is a common type and is the same material used for higher-grade medical face masks. Some commuter-style masks use polyester or spandex on the outside and a more breathable/comfortable cotton layer on the inside to improve comfort for regular use.
Most masks have some kind of elastic straps to attach the mask to your face. To reduce the risk of infection, you need to be able to remove it just using the straps and not touching your face or the front of the mask. It’s worth checking these aren’t uncomfortable to wear and should help the mask fit closely to your face.
How it protects you?
People may be asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic, and may not realise they are spreading viral particles when out in public. General public wearing face masks is not as clear cut as it is for social distancing and proper hand hygiene. So even if you’re wearing a mask, it’s vital to maintain these practices. Some experts fear improper mask use may even put people at more risk of infection, so it’s also important to know how to use and clean a mask safely.
Which type of mask is best?
It depends on the making of the individual masks and your preference. However, the thumb rule is to look for ties that are comfortable and also offer a snug fit. WHO has advised that people ideally use a three-layer mask, as this is thought to be more effective than a single or double layer. The WHO says the ideal combination of material for non-medical masks is three layers consisting of-an innermost layer of a hydrophilic (moisture absorbing) material (e.g. cotton or cotton blends), a middle hydrophobic (moisture repelling) layer of synthetic non-woven material such as polyproplylene or a cotton layer which may enhance filtration or retain droplets. These often come as disposable filters you buy alongside the mask.
Face masks for children?
It’s not recommended that children under two years old wear face masks, as they may pose a suffocation risk. Social distancing and hand hygiene are the best approaches for keeping them protected. Even with older children, the difficulty is in ensuring they use face masks properly, adhering to the hygiene guidelines.
How to protect yourself and others
- Maintain at least 1-metre distance between yourself and others to reduce your risk of infection when they cough, sneeze or speak. Maintain distance between yourself and others when indoors.
- Make wearing a mask a normal part of being around other people. The appropriate use, storage and cleaning or disposal is essential to make masks as effective as possible.
How to use your mask?
- Clean your hands before you put your mask on, as well as before and after you take it off, and after you touch it at any time.
- Make sure it covers your nose, mouth and chin.
- When you take off a mask, store it in a clean plastic bag, and every day either wash it if it’s a fabric mask, or dispose of a medical mask in a trash bin.
- Don’t use masks with valves.
What types of masks are recommended to prevent COVID-19?
Fabric masks are recommended to prevent onward transmission in the general population in public areas, particularly where distancing is not possible, and in areas of community transmission. Masks may help to protect others, because wearers may be infected before symptoms of illness appear.
Some basics of good hygiene
- Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth. Hands touch many surfaces and can pick up viruses. Once contaminated, hands can transfer the virus to your eyes, nose or mouth.
- Cover your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then dispose of the used tissue immediately into a closed bin and wash your hands.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces frequently especially those which are regularly touched, such as door handles, faucets and phone screens.
Potential benefits of wearing face mask
- Reduced spread of respiratory droplets containing infectious viral particles.
- Encourages prevention behaviours such as hand hygiene and not touching the eyes, nose and mouth.
- Prevents other respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis and influenza and reducing the burden of those diseases during the pandemic.
Harms of wearing face mask
- The potential disadvantages of mask use may be headache and/or breathing difficulties, depending on type of mask used.
- May develop facial skin lesions, irritant dermatitis or acne, when used frequently for long hours.
- Difficulty with communicating clearly, especially for persons who are deaf or have poor hearing or use lip reading.
- A false sense of security leading to potentially lower adherence to other critical preventive measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene poor compliance with mask wearing, in particular by young children.
- Waste management issues; improper mask disposal leading to increased litter in public places and environmental hazards.
- Difficulty wearing masks, especially for children, challenged persons, those with mental illness, persons with cognitive impairment, those with asthma or chronic respiratory or breathing problems, those who have had facial trauma and those living in hot and humid environments.
Disposing of mask
After removal or whenever you inadvertently touch a used mask, clean hands by using an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water. Discard single-use masks after each use and dispose of them immediately upon removal by soaking in household bleach solution and then throwing in a closed dustbin.