Friday, May 11, 2007

To mask or not to mask? That is the question

Flash back to 2003 and the global outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome. News footage showed images of people carrying out their daily routines in Asian and Canadian cities wearing surgical masks. Now, as we prepare for a possible flu pandemic, the question being asked is whether such masks will help stave off infection.

There are two types of masks commonly used to ward off disease: (1) a face mask/surgical mask and (2) an N95 respirator. Most of us have seen a surgical mask on an episode of ER or Scrubs or when visiting a hospital. But N95 respirators, which fit tightly to the face, are more commonly seen on construction sites.

So should you stock up on surgical masks, N95 respirators or both? Let’s compare.

* Properly fitted N95 respirators offer the best protection because they filter out the air you breathe in very well. But surgical masks can protect a wearer from large droplets that are a result of someone coughing or sneezing nearby. And, if you are sick, wearing a face mask can help reduce the chances that you will get other people sick.

* In the event of a flu pandemic or infectious disease outbreak, there would be a shortage of both; the federal government hasn’t stockpiled enough of either to guarantee one for every American. But chances are there will be many more surgical masks to go around; N95s are 10 times more expensive than surgical masks.

* Not everyone can wear an N95 respirator. For instance, there currently is not an N95 respirator that would work for kids, and N95s would not work as well for men with beards, as the fit around their face would not be as tight.

* For the average person, surgical masks are likely going to be the best bet, but they are not the perfect solution. They can only be worn once and must be worn correctly, and they will not work as well if the wearer is touching her or his face often with hands that could be infected by the flu.

* N95s are likely more appropriate for health care workers in direct contact with flu patients. But like surgical masks, you can only wear them once. If you happen to purchase N95 respirators or have them in your personal emergency kit, make sure to have them fitted to your face before a pandemic strikes. That way, they will offer you the protection that you expect.

Regardless of the mask, you’ll still need to follow the basic rules of how to best protect yourself and those you care about in the event of a pandemic or disease outbreak, including washing your hands and keeping your distance from others.

Have other questions about masks and respirators? Use the blog's comment feature belw to ask:


Anonymous said...

Great. Thanks! I heard that FDA just approved the sale of N95s to consumers specifically to protect against pandemic flu, but cautioned that they offer limited protection. I guess we'll be seeing them pop up in the aisles of grocery stores and pharmacies soon.

AJ said...

the N95s may be sold in stores, but as Alpha Flu Team cautioned in the blog post, the masks aren't fully effective unless they are fitted to your face. if a pharmacist or pharm tech is trained to fit the masks, they could be sold that way. for most droplet-spread illnesses, a surgical mask and glasses, goggles, or a clear plastic eye cover manufactured attached to the surgical mask works well. do we know if bird flu could be spread by droplets from person to person? my understanding is that is not likely at this time unless there is a mutation. -- AJsBodBlog