Surgical Masks – The Swine Flu Placebo?

May 3, 2009
The Insanity Continues

The Insanity Continues

Arriving to my destination country yesterday, I was greeted with two guys wearing medical masks and holding some kind of alcohol spray in their hands. They were interviewing people – mostly attractive looking women for some strange reason – and asking them where they had come from and if they were feeling “OK”. They had their masks on pretty loosely which just looked stupid.

Of course, Swine Flu is all the rage on the global stage these days. There has been a sudden interest in wearing surgical masks at many airports (I was thinking of marketing medical masks in pastel colors – let’s at least be fashionable right?). Mexico has become a black stamp with other nations canceling flights to Mexico, cruise ships avoiding Mexican ports like the plague and Mexicans traveling to other countries being subjected to extra questioning and possible quarantine. Some countries are even lumping Americans into this group as well because of the rising number of cases in the US.

Which brings me to the main question – do these masks people have chosen to wear really do anything? One US Public Health official was recorded as saying that they “give people something to do”. Hey, it may not prevent you getting sick, but at least you will trick your mind into thinking you are ok. Nice placebo.

For the general public, and those medical personnel who were sleeping during their infectious disease seminars, there are two types of masks used in medicine. The loose fitting “surgical” mask type and then a respirator type of mask.  These pictures will illustrate the various types:

Tie-on Surgical Mask

Tie-on Surgical Mask

N95 Respirator

N95 Respirator

The important difference between these two is their usage. The surgical type of mask is usually loosely fitting and PROTECTS OTHERS from your germs. It also protects the wearer from droplets like blood.

The respirator on the other hand PROTECTS YOU from other people’s germs. We wear them in the hospital when we are dealing with people that have tuberculosis and we have the person with the potential tuberculosis wear the surgical type of mask so they don’t infect others. Respirators are  specially fitted so as not to leave gaps for air-borne germs.

What type do most people wear in crisis moments like these though – they wear the surgical type of mask, and they often wear it incorrectly, like leaving the bottom ties untied, or covering only the mouth and not the nose. These masks would be great if YOU have the swine flu and want to be considerate enough not to spread it to others, but do nothing more than give you the warm fuzzies, fogged up glasses and a sweaty face if you are trying to avoid getting it.

To learn more about the properties of each type of mask and when they should be used, click here for an excellent summary in medical speak.

In the meantime, you can always use a mask to help pick up unwitting foreign girls or to express your thoughts on the continued insanity of  Swine Flu.


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