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 and 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.
Safe use of surgical masks
If surgical masks are being used outside of healthcare settings then it is important that community members are well informed about how to wear, handle and dispose of surgical masks. For guidance on the safe use of surgical masks, please watch this video or see the below infographic from the WHO.
Want to learn more about mask use for interrupting the spread of COVID-19?
- How could wearing a mask reduce COVID-19 transmission?
- What types of masks are there and what are they designed to do?
- What is a N95 respirator and who should use one?
- What is a fabric mask, who should use one, and how should they be made?
- What should be considered when making fabric masks?
- Hygienic use of fabric face masks
- What is an occupational mask and who should wear one?
- Why doesn’t the WHO recommend that everyone wears face masks in all settings?
- What do we know about the effectiveness of masks to prevent and COVID-19 transmission in community settings?
- What can modelling studies tell us about the effectiveness of wearing masks?
- How well do masks work under laboratory (experimental) conditions?
- Do homemade masks increase the risk of respiratory disease?
- How might an evolving understanding of virus transmission affect mask recommendations?
- Should hygiene promotion staff wear masks to protect themselves and others?