As consumers look for ways to protect themselves against H1N1 (swine) flu, they have begun to buy up face masks to protect themselves. Corporate America is meeting this demand by selling face masks en masse. I must admit that despite the seriousness of this issue I was slightly bemused by this display in my local Walgreens—potentially life-saving masks being sold along-side the ubiquitous Snuggies.
But are these masks what you need?
There are two main types of masks that health care providers use. The first mask is the simple surgical mask. It’s the one you usually see on TV and probably what your physician wore when you had surgery or a procedure. Generally, these masks provide some protection against flu.
The second type of mask has the weighty name “N95 Particulate Respirator.” Though this name sounds like it refers to some large contraption you wear on your back, it is actually a simple face mask that comes in several shapes, colors, and sizes. Individuals must undergo a specialized fitting to determine which type allows for the proper seal based on individual facial structure. In fact, it says so right on the packaging.
There is something you should know about N95 Respirators. If you have not been “fit-tested” to wear an N95 mask, you have no business wearing one. If you are not a medical professional dealing with an infected patient, you have no business wearing one. If you are out shopping for a Snuggie and think maybe you should pick up an N95 mask, “just in case,” you have no business buying one. In fact, the CDC recommends that unless you are a health care worker or are at increased risk for developing severe illness and must be in a crowded area, you should not be wearing one.
Now, I have no problem with people trying to protect themselves, but if you are not fit-tested to know what type and size of N95 Respirator will fit your face properly, then you might as well not be wearing an N95. A regular surgical mask will accomplish the same task for you.
N95 masks need to be reserved for those who need them most-health care practitioners who are in very close contact (think sputum-producing procedures) with patients who are known to be H1N1 flu positive.
Due to increased demand this year for N95 Respirators, there is a world-wide shortage of N95 Respirators. Even hospitals who have stock-piled these specialty masks are now concerned they may run out completely. In fact, some hospitals have decided to go against federal guidelines regarding the use of N95 Respirators in order to minimize the number used to try to ensure adequate supply. These added restrictions on the use of N95 Respirators may put nurses and doctors at increased risk of contracting H1N1—but if N95 Respirators are depleted completely, nurses and doctors will also be at risk of contracting other airborne illnesses like tuberculosis. It is a delicate balance. Since manufacturers have been unable to dramatically increase the supply, the only way to preserve availability is to decrease consumption.
So do your favorite nurse or doctor a favor, don’t buy N95 Respirators. Just buy a Snuggie instead.