Brian C. Joondeph, MD
February 22, 2021
Masks have become an unwelcome staple of American life with no end in sight. Mask recommendations change faster and more frequently than the weather. How did we get here?
In the medical world, particularly in operating rooms, masks protect patients undergoing surgery from bacteria passing from the mouths and noses of surgeons, nurses, and anesthesiologists, to an open surgical wound.
The Rolls Royce of masks is the N95 mask, used by healthcare workers when caring for COVID infected individuals. Assuming the mask is properly fitted and worn, a given for healthcare workers (but much less likely for a shopper in the grocery store), they are generally effective.
I say generally because the COVID virus is about 0.125 microns in size while the N95 mask pores are larger, at 0.3 microns. But the N95 mask is not simply a miniature chain link fence but uses fibers and electrostatic charges to capture viral particles.
Most individuals, however, are wearing loosely fitting cloth masks, cheap surgical masks, or bandanas to cover their face and nose. These masks easily allow breath to escape through or around the mask, as this video from Dr Ted Noel illustrates.
Negative mask consequences range from the annoying, like headaches and bad breath, to the potentially harmful, as in impaired oxygenation and gum disease. Then there are the psychosocial and developmental aspects, especially for children.