N95 face masks have been in international short supply since the coronavirus outbreak started in China, prompting millions of people to buy them.
But how do we know if these masks are effective, what are they normally used for, and are they actually protecting us against coronavirus?
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N95 face masks have been selling out in record numbers since the coronavirus epidemic got underway[/caption]
What are N95 face masks?
N95 masks are disposable face masks that are proven to filter the air to an industrial standard.
Manufacturers vary, but the N95 is a stamp from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to show that it is efficient, which comes with a logo.
They are used to stop you from breathing in hazardous small particles, such as dust, mould or aerosol paint particles.
They generally have an 8-hour shelf life before becoming clogged depending on the work you’re doing.
What’s the science behind N95 masks?
The N95 stamp means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95 per cent of 0.3 microns (0.00003 cm) test particles.
A study by BMC found that voluntary coughs generated droplets ranging from 0.1 – 900 microns in size.
Droplets of less than one-micron size represent 97 per cent of the total number of measured droplets contained in the cough aerosol.
A sneeze generates up to 40,000 droplets, of which most are smaller than 100 microns.
The coronavirus molecule is 0.125 microns (0.0000125 cm) by comparison and is known to be carried in pulmonary droplets.
Do surgical and N95 masks protect against coronavirus infection?
New evidence has prompted officials to consider a major U-turn over wearing masks.
On April 2, 2020, World Health Organisation (WHO) advisers said they will examine research that suggests their wider use does help to combat coronavirus.
At the moment the advice is that if you do not have symptoms then don’t wear one.
There is a lot of debate over wearing non-medical masks, as Sadiq Khan said recently when he recommended that all Londoners wear a mask while out and about to stop the spread.
His idea has lead to a fair bit of backlash, but the policies around the benefits of wearing non-medical grade masks are still under debate.
Previously, general advice coming from the WHO was that masks should be worn by people who are infected or treating those who are ill, like NHS workers and carers.
Wearing masks will reduce the risks of contraction under poorly ventilated circumstances by diverting the flow of infected breath away from your mouth.
They are far less effective if not worn and fitted properly as they will not be able to form a seal and filtration.
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If they become moist then the masks are compromised, which is why medical workers or infected people need to be wearing them consistently.
A spokesperson for Public Health England said there was little evidence of widespread benefit from wearing masks outside clinical settings.
“Facemasks must be worn correctly, changed frequently, removed properly, disposed of safely and used in combination with good universal hygiene behaviour in order for them to be effective.
“Research also shows that compliance with these recommended behaviours reduces over time when wearing facemasks for prolonged periods.”
But this advice is under constant review.
How can I protect myself without a mask?
Social distancing is the main and cheapest way to stop yourself getting infected.
Stay as far from everyone as you can, or, as the government saying goes, stay at home.
MIT Professor Lydia Bourouiba of MIT, who did a recent study on pathogen emissions, told the BBC that she is concerned about the current concept of “safe distances”.
She said: “What we exhale, cough or sneeze is a gas cloud that has high momentum that can go far, traps the drops of all sizes in it and carries them through the room.
“So having this false idea of safety at one to two metres, that somehow drops will just fall to the ground at that distance is not based on what we have quantified, measured and visualised directly.”
How to wear a mask properly if you need one
The major issue with the masks is that most people don’t wear them the right way, compromising their efficiency.
When applied correctly they will form a seal, like a pair of swimming goggles, but get hot and stuffy, so most people are likely to try and open them at the sides to breathe better, defeating the purpose.
Manufacturers advise that it must cover both the nose and mouth to keep you from breathing in mould and dust. If it does not have a snug fit, it will not work properly.
It must form a seal around your mouth and nose, which is why we are seeing medics with bruising and red marks on their cheeks.
It will not work properly for people with beards or facial hair. Even one-day beard growth has been shown to let air leak in, so shave.
Is there a shortage of face masks?
The huge surge in demand for the masks has produced shortages around the world, and many online retailers have been increasing their prices in response.
Factories have ramped up production, but hospitals have reported not having enough for their staff to use.
LA County health workers were this week told to reuse masks after emergency supplies ran out.
Medical TV shows including Grey’s Anatomy and The Good Doctor donating supplies of medical equipment from their sets for use on the front line. Even a medical fetish shop sent their supply to their local hospital.
The shortage has led authorities to encourage the public to leave the masks to be used by medical staff and other people directly exposed to the virus.
Initiatives have also been launched asking people who can so or who own 3D printers to help in the manufacture of face masks and other medical equipment.
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How can you help hospitals and medics that are struggling to get hold of PPE?
In spite of the Government doing its best to get supplies to our NHS heroes, there are a lot of cases where medics, care facilities and hospitals are forced to buy their own PPE due to the international shortage.
All hands are on deck in our hospitals and nursing homes, but a lack of PPE means that they are putting themselves and many of their patients at risk.
Without proper PPE our doctors and nurses are literally dying in the line of duty.
Hospitals are going as far as to get schools and volunteers to make PPE masks.
You can help by donating to causes like Masks for NHS Heroes, a team of doctors who are buying in more PPE for British hospitals and can get it airdropped within the week.
Do surgical face masks protect against coronovirus?