Respiratory protection is all about preventing pathogens from entering your lungs, and infecting you. It’s a critical component of your personal protective equipment (PPE) and you should understand what to use.

Firstly, you need to know that there is a very big difference between a surgical face mask and a respirator. A surgical face mask is to protect the patient from the breath of a surgeon, or other people from an infected person. A respirator is to protect the wearer from airborne particles such as viruses, bacteria, allergens, smoke or dust.

Here you will read about what the different types of mask are and what you should be using.

How long should masks be worn before they are replaced?

Unless they are re-usable, masks should only be worn once. The frequency with which they are changed will depend on the nature of the duties being undertaken as well as taking account of the manufacturer’s instructions. In the healthcare setting, the replacement of masks will be governed by the requirements of infection control procedures.

Surgical Face Mask

Surgical face masks are worn while performing long periods of surgery on a patient. Designed to be very comfortable and allow a fairly free flow of air. Their purpose is to catch the breath of the surgeon so that any infection present in his breath doesn’t end up in the patient.

Surgical masks for patient protection

As a result, a surgical face mask is of limited use to protect you from an infection. The air containing any airborne pathogens will take the path of least resistance. Instead it will go straight into your nose and mouth without going through the filtration the mask provides.

Whilst they will provide a physical barrier to large projected droplets, they do not provide full respiratory protection against smaller suspended droplets and aerosols. That is, they are not regarded as personal protective equipment (PPE) under the European Directive 89/686/EEC (PPE Regulation 2002 SI 2002 No. 1144).

If you need to protect your family and other people from your infection, wear a surgical mask.

Respirator Mask

There are two basic kinds of respirator mask, valved and unvalved. A valved respirator allows your breath to freely flow out, but closes when you breath in to force the air to flow through the filter. An unvalved respirator requires you to breathe solely through the filter, both in and out. So, hospitals prefer to use unvalved respirators, so any infected healthcare team members don’t exhale unfiltered breath.

Respirator masks for respiratory protection

Within the two respirator types there are some sub-types too. There are disposable and re-usable respirators. Disposable respirators come in two basic forms, either a pre-formed cup or a fold flat design.

Re-usable respirators are almost always valved, mostly because it’s more comfortable for the wearer. Also, because it allows the most air out and your filters don’t end up wet and hard to breathe through. An advantage of re-usable respirators is that they typically are made of materials that create a better seal against the skin around your mouth and nose. The improved seal forces more air to be breathed through the filters.

Disposable respirators have a bendable strip that allows you to create a better seal around the bridge of your nose than a surgical mask. That forces the air you breathe to go through the filter rather than around it.

Respirator Standards

The minimum standard you should be looking for in a respirator in the UK or European Union is FFP2 (Filtering FacePiece) EN149:2001, but FFP3 is better. The A1:2009 additional standard is preferred. All PPE must be CE marked. The mask’s standards are printed on the mask itself, or on the filters if re-usable.

What other protective measures Should I Take?

You should adopt safe practices and not rely solely on personal protective equipment as a means of protection. You need to adopt sensible hygiene measures by washing your hands thoroughly and more frequently than normal and avoiding unnecessary hand to mouth or hand to eye contact.

For more details about the procedures for donning and removing PPE in a pandemic scenario please read the article on “How to Wear Infection Control PPE“.