As we stumble into the fourth quarter of 2020, the global landscape that greets us has undergone some quite dramatic changes over the first nine months of this most unprecedented of years. Regularly sanitizing our hands and maintaining safe social distancing are all part of the ‘new norm’. Even the little social customs we previously took for granted, like hugging or shaking hands, have been banished from daily life. It’s human nature to resist change but perhaps one of the most contentious aspects of this new world is the humble face mask.
1. Do Face Masks Work?
Conspiracy theories aside, the main bone of contention here relates to just how effective face masks are at preventing the spread of Covid-19, or whether they are even necessary. While the current pandemic is still relatively new territory, research into the benefits of wearing face coverings to prevent the spread of infections goes back some time.
A 2009 research paper published by the Royal Society asserted that many droplets of saliva and other invisible secretions are routinely expelled from the respiratory tract during everyday interactions such as talking, laughing, coughing and sneezing. The research then goes on to clarify that if the person inadvertently spreading those droplets is suffering from a respiratory infection, then pathogens will almost certainly be present in these droplets. In essence, this is how the common cold and flu are spread each year.
Experiments carried out as part of the same Royal Society study also revealed that the size of the droplets determines how far any infection is potentially spread. As you would expect, large droplets will fall pretty quickly, landing on surfaces where they can then be picked up by a new host. On the other hand, smaller droplets seem to pose a bigger risk as they can be carried further distances in the air, thus increasing the risk of further infections. With this in mind, it’s safe to say that any kind of barrier between our respiratory system and the air we all share will reduce the risk of spreading infection.
In a more recent study conducted this year by Florida Atlantic University, researchers were able to determine the exact distance that respiratory droplets could travel, and for how long they are able to remain airborne. It was concluded that airborne droplets were able to travel as far as twelve feet in a period of 50 seconds. This finding reaffirms the essential nature of social distancing, and the need to wear a protective face covering when in close proximity to others.
2. Are Medical Face Masks Safer?
According to the joint research findings conducted by engineers from Heriot-Watt University, the University of Edinburgh and NHS Lothian clinicians, all face coverings could potentially help stop the spread of Covid-19 to some extent. The researchers tested several mask types and found that they were all relatively effective, albeit with some caveats. The research team found that whilst most masks generally helped to suppress the spread of the droplets, the degree of effectiveness depended on the style and the fit of the mask.
Disposable medical face masks, sometimes referred to as surgical style face masks, whilst not wholly effective at protecting the wearer from inhaling droplets, were effective at reducing the outflow of breath quite considerably. However, the research team found that these masks also generated “far-reaching leakage jets to the side, behind, above and below” the mask. In particular, heavy breathing and coughing were shown to generate “intense backward jets” and disbursement of respiratory droplets in ‘transverse directions’. Let’s not forget, too, that where air can get out, air – possibly infected air – can also get in!
Whilst the science around the efficacy of masks is still not definitive, there have been a number of studies offering promising results. For example, research published in the Journal of Health Affairs that compared COVID-19 infection rates before and after mask ordinances in certain US states, noted a significant slowdown in transmission after mask use became widespread. The study concluded that within 5 days of face coverings becoming mandatory, transmission dropped by 0.9%. Three weeks later, transmission had dropped by a further 1.1%.
So, while masks may not completely eradicate the risk of infection, it appears clear that a mask that covers the mouth and nose is undoubtedly of benefit.
3. How do you wear a face mask properly?
Regardless of the type of mask you choose, for a mask to do its job effectively, it is important that it is both comfortable and functional. To ensure maximum protection for yourself and others, here are three simple tips to remember:
- Make sure it’s facing the right way: whilst this may sound obvious, it’s important to make sure that you’re able to mold the stiff bendable section of the mask across your nose. This will reduce the amount of air that’s able to escape from the sides and the bottom.
- Snug is best: choose a size that wraps comfortably over your mouth and nose. This will reduce potential exposure to infection, and will also mean that you won’t have to continually readjust it.
- Don’t forget to breathe: most importantly, remember to breathe through your mask and not around it.
At the end of the day, the most important thing is to choose a mask that allows you to go about your business, while simultaneously offering protection for yourself and those around you.
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