Surgical Face Masks – COVID-19’s status as a new virus means that decisions about how to best manage the pandemic have been fraught with uncertainty. Advice is constantly being revised thanks to new evidence.

This includes the effectiveness of PPE masks in reducing transmission of the virus. The debate as to who should wear masks and when they should do so has caused some confusion. This guide should help clarify some points.

Why wear a mask?

There is no COVID-19 vaccine to stop you catching the virus and there is no cure if you are infected with the virus. Treatment has to focus on managing symptoms. This means that the most important thing you can do is try to minimise transmission. This will not just reduce the rate of infection but will protect health workers on the front line.

Surgical masks are a vital part of personal protective equipment for health workers, just like PPE gloves and PPE aprons. They are essential for those in constant contact with the infected.

They can also be useful to people outside of healthcare settings, particularly with lockdown restrictions being eased and more people out and about on the street.

Wearing a mask has two purposes. One is to stop you spreading your germs to others when you breathe. The second is to try and stop germs from elsewhere reaching you.

Whether the mask is effective depends on its fit, filter, the material used and whether you follow best practice when wearing it.

FFP2 and FFP3 respirator masks are considered the best choice. Mask wearing should also be accompanied by social distancing and frequent handwashing or use of hand sanitiser.

Other important things to remember when wearing surgical face masks are that they can only be worn by one person. Wash your hands before and after handling your mask.

When your surgical face masks are finished with, put it in a plastic bag before disposing of it. Your mask should be replaced if it is damaged in any away, including if it becomes soiled. You should also remove your mask if you are having trouble breathing.

When should you wear surgical face masks?

You do not need to wear a mask at home unless you are living with somebody who has COVID-19. Even if you do wear a mask indoors, you should still try to remain as separate as possible from the infected person (including using separate bathroom facilities when possible).

As it is impossible to know who you will encounter when you are outside, it is advisable to wear a mask whenever you leave the house for any reason, including shopping and exercise.

How effective are surgical face masks?

Surgical face masks cannot offer absolute protection from COVID-19. Masks are only useful for blocking the largest respiratory droplets. Smaller particles from coughing and sneezing may not be filtered by the mask and could therefore still transmit the virus. This is why measures such as handwashing remain so important.

If you combine mask-wearing with other preventative measures such as handwashing, you can reduce your chances of catching COVID-19 or the risk of spreading it to others. This will not just protect you, but other vulnerable members of the public. Wearing surgical face masks also reduce the pressure on and risk to healthcare workers.

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