As lockdown lifts, wearing a face mask could be your only defence against COVID-19: How to pick the right one

WHO keeps reminding the public that mask needs to be worn correctly and kept clean to ensure that they are effective in stopping the virus.

It has been four long months since the world came to a standstill due to the novel Coronavirus, with people locking their doors and staying indoors. This gave governments and medical facilities time to get their house in order and attend to the constant stream of infected patients pouring in day after day. 

With viral transmission coming under control and economies buckling under the pressure of industries shutting down, countries are contemplating lifting lockdown restrictions.

But the staggered lift in restrictions has led to a rise in cases. New Zealand, which had successfully eradicated the virus, has seen a spike in new cases, along with China, Iran, and Japan, to name a few. 

This means, when the lockdown lifts, your best defence against contracting Coronavirus is wearing a mask. But how do you pick the right mask?

Wearing a mask hen you go out and practising social distancing are two of the easiest way to avoid getting infected with the novel coronavirus.

Wearing a mask hen you go out and practising social distancing are two of the easiest way to avoid getting infected with the novel coronavirus.

Why masks are important 

COVID-19 is thought to spread via micro-droplets released when an infected person breathes, sneezes or coughs, and can enter the body through the eyes, mouth, and nose. In order to stop this spread, health workers wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) which includes a gown, helmet, gloves, goggles, a face mask, respirators, shoe covers, and a visor for eye protection.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends washing hands frequently and not touching your face is the best way to avoid infection. A mask may help stop the spread, but hygiene is the key to avoid getting it in the first place.

"While simple medical and cloth masks are not designed to filter out the virus, if two individuals wear masks and maintain physical distancing, the probability of acquiring the infection reduces dramatically,” says Dr Lancelot Pinto, a consultant pulmonologist at Hinduja Hospital.

A healthcare worker wearing his Personal Protective Equipment

A healthcare worker wearing his Personal Protective Equipment

WHO officials are constantly reminding the public that masks need to be worn correctly and kept clean to ensure that they are effective in stopping the spread of the virus.

"People can infect themselves if they use contaminated hands to adjust a mask or repeatedly take it on or off," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom clarified. "I cannot say this clearly enough, masks alone will not protect you from COVID-19.”

“For a virus like COVID-19, where individuals can spread the disease in the pre-symptomatic stage, wearing a mask is the responsible thing to do, even a simple medical mask or cloth mask works well at arresting the droplets and reducing spread," Pinto said.

What should I look for when buying a mask?

The WHO estimates that around 89 million medical masks are needed globally, each month while the pandemic continues to spread. A World Economic Forum report lists three types of mask that are most commonly used – surgical masks, respirators and cloth face coverings.

However, it is necessary to look for a mask that is suitable to you and gives you enough protection against the virus, a Johns Hopkin blog post reads. It should also cover both your nose and mouth. 

For my friends that wear glasses, like I do, and struggle with the constant fogging up of our lenses, choose a mask that has a clip-on that can be bent on the bridge of your nose. This will keep your glasses from fogging to a minimum.

Different types of mask

There are a lot of different mask options available to suit everyone’s needs. They range in sizes, type, prices as well as the amount of protection they offer.

In case you’re wondering what the ‘N’ on some of the masks stand for, they are for  “respirators if they are not resistant to oil,”. They are marked ‘R’ if a mask is somewhat resistant to oil, and ‘P’ if strongly resistant or oil-proof.”

Surgrical masks are usually used by doctors and other health care professionals.

Surgrical masks are usually used by doctors and other health care professionals.

An N99 particulate filtering mask can trap at least 99 percent of airborne particles. Much like the N99, the N95 respirator filters out 95 percent of airborne particles. Unlike some of the more heavy-duty masks available, the N99 and N95 are not oil-resistant.

Surgical masks are usually worn by doctors or health care workers and prevent bacteria, splashes of droplets, fluids, water, etc from entering the mouth and nose. They are made with three layers of material, one of which is a filter that can catch microbes entering or exiting the body. However, they do not offer any protection to the wearer from airborne bacteria or viruses in the air, which tend to be much smaller in size.

Activated carbon/charcoal masks can act as a powerful primary defence against air pollution and some airborne diseases. They make use of the principle of adsorption, where charged particles in the mask act like tiny magnets for charged chemicals in pollutants and pathogens. While activated carbon/charcoal masks work well in keeping away bacteria and fungi, they are not effective in filtering viruses like COVID-19.

The WHO says that there has been limited evidence of the effectiveness of non-medical, fabric masks and they do not recommend their usage. However, they can come in handy in situations where masks aren’t available, or physical distancing and other public control measures cannot be implemented. These masks should cover the person's nose, mouth, and chin, and be secured with elastic loops or ties that keep the edges of the mask in place.

There are more than a few tutorials online that show you how to make your own mask. However, there are some things to keep in mind while using a homemade fabric or cotton mask. It should have an inner layer of absorbent material such as cotton, a middle layer of non-woven material such as polypropylene and an outer layer of a non-absorbent material, such as polyester or polyester blend.

"Homemade masks can also help prevent the spread and keep you safe while strictly following social distancing practices and other preventive measures even after the lockdown is completely lifted," Dr Anand Bhabhor, Additional Director Critical Care medicine, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre said.

Also Read: Another one bites the dust as scientists take aim at new Coronavirus study published in a major science journal — PNAS

How to dispose of a used mask

When taking off a mask – any type of mask – make sure to not touch the front of the mask, as it will have the highest dose of contaminants. If you do touch the mask, wash your hands immediately or use a hand sanitizer. Do not let the mask rest on your chin or let your nose peek out, as this defeats the whole purpose of wearing one.

Using a reusable mask is recommended for people who are not infected. You can wash it with soap and water and then set the mask to dry. Alternatively, you can wash it in the washing machine, or by hand using gloves in a solution of bleach and water. Once washed, the Indian Council of Medical Research recommends treating the mask further with heat – by drying it in the sun or ironing it. It is also advised to cut non-reusable masks prior to disposal to prevent their reuse.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare released guidelines that states masks used by patients/caregivers/ close contacts during home care should be disinfected using ordinary bleach solution (five percent) or sodium hypochlorite solution (one percent) and then disposed of either by burning or burial in the ground to prevent infection of other people.

Also read:

Coronavirus Outbreak: Don't hold your breath for a COVID-19 vaccine in 2020

Decades-old Soviet studies hint at possible strategy to curb coronavirus: Repurposing existing vaccines

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