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Surgical masks

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 2 minutes read

Surgical (medical) face masks are a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) initially used by healthcare professionals while undertaking medical procedures. They prevent the transmission of airborne infections by creating an additional barrier between the wearer and those around them, blocking the movement of infected droplets and aerosols and reducing the possibility of inhalation and transmission by the mask wearer. A surgical/medical mask does not prevent the complete inhalation of particles unless rated as N95.

More recently, medical masks have been shown to reduce the transmission of airborne pathogens (viruses, bacteria and fungi) between public members when worn in areas with poor ventilation.

Its place post-COVID

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was necessary for all members of the public (unless explicitly exempt) to wear masks to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. This was to protect you and others from contracting COVID-19. Please refer to your local government guidelines for the current information on when to wear your mask as protocols do change, even if it is now uncommon to wear a mask.

How does it work?

Surgical masks work by creating an extra barrier in front of your airways that reduces the velocity (speed) at which aerosolized droplets produced by you can travel. These masks do not entirely prevent the transmission of these particles but reduce the distance they can travel.

Surgical masks are more effective than cotton masks in reducing the velocity of aerosols. However, a cotton mask is significantly better than no mask.

There is only one correct way to wear your mask. It must cover your mouth and nose, with the ear loops securely placed around your ears. The lower part of the mask should rest below your chin, while the top section covers the lower half of your nose.

Does it affect my oxygen levels?

Surgical masks have been used for decades, with medical professionals wearing them for complex and intensive surgeries for several hours at a time with no issues. There have been many recent studies published on the effects of masks on breathing. The conclusion is that while you may feel like it is restricting your breathing, masks do not affect oxygen or carbon dioxide levels. Studies have also been conducted on how masks can affect individuals with severe lung impairments, which have concluded that there is no meaningful change in the ability to breathe.

The discomfort many people feel while wearing a mask is linked to an increased awareness of your breathing, especially since you have a high concentration of temperature sensors around your mouth that detect your warm breath. This leads many to believe that they are having difficulty breathing when their breathing has not changed.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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