With COVID-19 and pollution, which masks should you be wearing?
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, experts have stressed the importance of wearing face masks to shield people from the viral disease. However, even as the world grapples with COVID-19, residents of North India are also breathing in polluted air. As experts have warned that exposure to air pollution can increase the risk of COVID-19 mortality, which masks should you be wearing?
Any mask better than no mask
Even though one should hope to opt for better masks, any mask or covering is better than a bare face. Studies have shown that masks reduced the effects of breathing in polluted air. "All masks act as a barrier to prevent particulate matter. But the efficiency varies from one another," Dr. Arun Sharma—a Professor at Delhi's University College of Medical Sciences—told The Quint.
If you've been wearing a cloth mask, should you switch?
The general advisory for the public to shield themselves from COVID-19 has been to wear reusable three-layer cloth masks. Dr. Jayalakshmi TK, a Pulmonology Consultant at Apollo Hospitals, told The Times of India, "Using a good-grade surgical or cloth mask would protect against pollution as well as COVID-19 right now." Dr. Jayalakshmi stressed the importance of wearing a properly fitted mask.
Fashionable masks should be avoided
Dr. Kinjal D. Modi, a Pulmonology Consultant at Hinduja Hospital Khar, told TOI, "A regular cloth or disposable mask would do. Make sure you are using one which fits you well." However, Dr. Modi warned against "fashionable" masks with embroidery, sequins, or holes in them.
Should you be wearing surgical masks?
Disposable surgical masks can also be used if they fit properly, Dr. Jayalakshmi said. "As long as you use a mask that covers your nose and goes under your chin, does not have any loose ends or makes you uncomfortable, there's no added risk of pollution," she said. Notably, disposable surgical masks are not designed to block particulate matter and are not reusable.
'Cloth, surgical masks get soiled after 5-6 hours'
Dr. Modi told the publication, "Cloth and surgical masks get soiled after 5-6 hours of usage. Do not prolong their use." He said, "If you use a disposable mask, throw them after use in a close bin. Reusable masks, made out of cotton or other material should be given a good wash and allowed to dry well before being used again."
Should N95, N99 masks be used?
While basic masks work well to offer protection against droplets, an N95 mask is better against airborne particles and is hence preferred to combat pollution. However, there are other concerns with N95/N99 masks. Such masks are more expensive and cannot offer resistance against oil-based pollutants. Widespread use of N95/N99 masks can also create a shortage for those who need them most.
'N95 masks can increase exposure risk if not worn correctly'
Dr. Modi said N95 masks can be uncomfortable to wear for prolonged hours and can increase risk of exposure if worn incorrectly. While such masks are better against pollution, they are not recommended for COVID-19. Experts also warned against the use of valved respirator masks.
What other things should you keep in mind?
Dr. Jayalakshmi and Dr. Modi advised people to go for regular flu and pneumonia vaccinations to keep themselves safe. Timely vaccination could also reduce the severity of infections. People are also advised to avoid going outdoors at peak pollution hours. 10 am-5 pm would be the safest time to step outside. People should also keep indoor air pollution under check.