These are used in general practice among health staff. They are looser fitting than N95 respirators and disposable. They are designed to trap the user’s respiratory particles, created during coughing, sneezing, or speaking and prevent these particles from entering the environment. They also block large-particle droplets, splashes, sprays, or splatter that may contain germs (viruses and bacteria) from reaching the user’s mouth and nose. Some surgical masks will also block small particles (particles that are 0.1 micron in size), but this applies only to surgical masks manufactured to ASTM F2100 standards. While there are different types of surgical masks, with different degrees of thickness, most are not specifically designed to block the transmission of viruses via small airborne particles. Surgical masks are designed to balance filtration, breathability, and fluid penetration; their performance is tested by specific standardized methods (ASTM F2100, EN 14683). Surgical masks cannot safely be used more than once.

Who should wear a surgical mask?

The use of surgical masks is only recommended under limited circumstances. The World Health Organisation currently recommends that surgical masks are used by the following individuals:

  • If you have any symptoms associated with COVID-19
  • If you are taking care of or live with a person who is suspected to have COVID-19.
  • If you are working in a health centre or hospital and are in contact with people who could be infected with COVID-19.
  • If you are aged 60 or older or have pre-existing medical conditions

People with symptoms are asked to wear surgical masks so that they have a reduced likelihood of transmitting the virus to others. It is also recommended that people in caretaking roles wear masks because they are at high risk of infection. Watch this video from the WHO for more information on who should use surgical masks and how to put them on, wear them, and take them off safely. These guidelines on who should wear masks have been adopted by most national governments but there are some exceptions and variations. Please check mask-related guidelines with the National Department of Health in your country. Please see this resource for further information on the hygienic use of surgical masks and this resource for information on safe disposal.

Want to learn more about mask use for interrupting the spread of COVID-19?

Editor's note

Author: Jackie Knee
Review: Peter Winch, Julie Watson
Last update: 06.18.2020

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