How Safe Am I Behind A Face-mask?
By Ore Taiwo Makinde. Image credit: freepik.
The new trend in town Wearing a face mask has fast become the trending norm in town. Following the long-anticipated ease of the pandemic-induced lockdown, people milled onto the streets, their faces veiled with assorted versions of masks. However, watching the behaviour of people behind the masks, it is quite obvious that very few citizenry understand the rationale for wearing them in the first place. Some have turned it into a practical joke, while some have used the opportunity to create a fashion code from various “ankara” and “aso-oke” cultural materials.
There have been many questions as to how safe we are behind face masks and which one offers the best protection. However, the major source of concern I see is not necessarily the type of mask being used but rather the behaviour surrounding its use.
Uncertain behaviour in the purchase and use of face masks
A patient visited a pharmacy to purchase a face-mask, relating how he almost bought a cloth mask by the roadside a few moments earlier. He was discouraged when another shopper came by and tried on at least four masks before deciding which one to go home with. He was not quite sure who had tried the mask on earlier and who would try it on afterwards. This is obviously an easy way to spread a vicious virus causing COVID-19.
There is another action more common to most of us. Someone wears a face mask and soon after, the mask is drawn below the jaw-line and shortly pulled up again to cover the nose and mouth. Many are guilty of this, including our leaders who pull down their face-masks while talking to the media and audiences. It looks like a harmless action when in actual fact we are putting ourselves at more risk with these actions.
Several precautions to reduce the transmission of this feared virus have been advised by the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and World Health Organisation (WHO). These recommendations are inclusive of frequent hand-washing with soap and water, use of sanitisers, regular cleaning of frequently handled objects and surfaces, physical distancing and the wearing of face-masks which is probably the least understood precaution.
Wearing face-masks is not new for some workers The face-mask is in reality not new for several categories of workers such as those who work in cement factories, saw mills, bank vaults and operating rooms. It has also been prescribed for those with severe allergies or bronchial asthma to reduce exposure to triggers while in such an environment. The protection offered by the face-mask is in fact double-pronged, particularly for those who work in operating rooms. Wearing it protects the surgeon, anaesthetist and other theatre workers from assailing hospital smells and possible blood splashes to the face. More importantly, it protects the patient being operated upon from the risk of a wound infection. Our nostrils and mouths contain bacteria referred to as “normal flora” which can infect open wounds, a major reason why medical professionals cover these orifices while carrying out surgical procedures.
In the same vein, the main rationale behind the face-mask recommendation is double-pronged. It is both to protect our individual selves and also to protect our neighbours. The face mask can help cover your cough, your sneeze as well as droplets that may be expelled while talking, thereby reducing droplet spread of the virus.
Determinants of the effectiveness of face-masks
The texture of the mask: Studies report that the common surgical mask captures 80% of tiny particles 14 times smaller than the coronavirus while the N95 mask captures over 90% of such particles, making the surgical mask a very useful and much cheaper alternative to the expensive N95 mask. The DIY (Do-It-Yourself) or homemade masks have been reported to capture 50-60% of the virus-sized particles. DIY masks include single layers of cotton and kitchen towel fabric.
The consistency of the use of face-masks in public: Wearing a mask is of utmost importance while in public, especially while in public transportation or public areas like banks, offices and markets. However, you can remove your mask once at home or in a low-risk area e.g while alone in your office or car.
Habits surrounding the wearing of the face-mask: Avoid repeated touching and adjustment of your face mask. It is safer to assume that the mask captured the virus while it was worn on the face. It is therefore advisable that hands are sanitized each time the mask is touched.
Care of the face-masks: Alcohol sprays can be used to disinfect the N95 masks immediately following use. Surgical masks are disposable while DIY (homemade) masks should be washed immediately with soap and water.
How you purchase your masks: Firstly, avoid trying on or fitting a mask on your face while shopping for one. Secondly, allow the disposable surgical mask to sit for at least eight-hours before use when you are sure that whatever is on the mask is no longer virulent. Wash purchased home-made masks before use.
In conclusion, it is not enough to adopt a fashion statement of wearing face masks but it is far more important to adopt protective behaviours so as not to re-infect oneself with whatever the mask has captured. Wearing a face-mask should not be done in isolation of other health recommendations. It should rather be a complement to hand-washing and physical distancing. You may not be able to access the N95 mask but any mask is better than nothing. Please wear a mask and stay safe.
Dr Ore Taiwo Makinde is a Consultant Family & certified Lifestyle Medicine Physician.