N95 masks are now being recognized as invaluable for everyday protection by the public, in the workplace, and for healthcare workers. So, how long can you wear an N95 mask?
There has never been such an urgent or widespread need for N95 facepiece respirators. Issues with shortages and limited supply may have let up for now. There may currently be more affordable options for ensuring you have enough of these respirator masks for your business, home, and yourself. Yet, even though the IRS has deemed face masks as a qualified medical deduction, we all want to find the right balance between safety, smart preparation, and not hoarding.
So, what is the guidance for N95 masks among the COVID-19 pandemic now? Is limited reuse of these types of masks possible? How long can you wear an N95 mask?
What Are N95 Masks & What Are They Used For?
The N95-Mask is a specific type of particle filtering respirator mask.
A true N95 mask has to meet very strict standards to pass filter integrity levels and user seal checks.
Most notably this form of respiratory protection is tested to filter out at least 95% of fine airborne particles. This differentiates them from the vast majority of masks on the market, which does not keep out infectious droplets and airborne particles. That includes cloth masks, medical masks, and surgical face masks.
The other significant and stand-out difference with N95s is that they fit correctly to protect the wearer from sucking in toxic particles and infectious diseases around the mask. A common issue with cloth face masks and surgical masks. A factor that has probably greatly contributed to COVID-19-virus transmission over the past couple of years.
People thought they were being safe. They were allowed to use inferior alternatives. Or through vaccination alone would save them. All of which turns out not to be true. We now know that we should all be wearing N95 masks for any serious protection.
There are a variety of common applications for N95 respirator masks today.
The most obvious include:
- For miners
- As commercial dust masks
- In hazardous environmental conditions
- For protection from wildfire smoke
- As protection against mold and animal-related infectious diseases
- For healthcare personnel and in healthcare settings
- To prevent the transmission of COVID-19
N95 masks have emerged as the primary form of SARS-CoV-2 infection protection.
With vaccines having plateaued at around 50% of the population, and certain vaccines actually increasing the chances of getting infected with COVID, everyone needs masks.
Even more so with the newer and even more contagious Delta variant which has swept the world and the USA, overwhelming healthcare systems. As well as the government reportedly limiting access to and even seizing the supply of COVID treatments from some states.
Airborne transmission of infectious particles seems to have been even worse with new strains like Delta. Which has led to some states having to fly those with confirmed or suspected SARS-CoV-2 infection to other states for care. Or have had to set up ambulances as an outdoor healthcare facility due to hospitals being full.
Currently, there seems to be no better protection than the N95 mask.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says “Some variants may cause more people to get sicker and die, for example, Alpha and Delta variants.” They recommend wearing a mask indoors when the transmission is likely. Regardless of vaccination status.
WHO has currently designated four COVID Variants Of Concern (VOC). They include the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants.
They have also identified five Variants Of Interest (VOI):
These variants become areas of special focus and concern due to genetic changes which can alter the virus’ severity, transmissibility, and ability to escape diagnosis and even immunity.
At the time of assembling this report, not enough data had been published by authorities on the exact mutations of the Mu Variant. Though there is more concern among healthcare professionals that variants like this will be vaccine-resistant.
The official guidance is that everyone should get vaccinated. Double vaccinated, and then get booster jabs frequently as new strains of the coronavirus emerge and spread.
However, emerging data suggests that while vaccination may reduce the risk of death or even hospitalization for some with suspected or confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infections, it may increase the chances of catching the virus or myocarditis.
Whether vaccinated or not, it seems that it is quality masks that really prevent transmission and infection.
Both vaccinations and quality masks are increasingly being mandated for everything from travel to renting an apartment and being able to eat out or run a business.
Even when not specifically mandated, N95 masks have proven to be the best defense and tool against spreading this infectious disease when it comes to mask-wearing.
The official statement from the CDC is that healthcare workers can wear an N95 mask for up to eight continuous hours.
That does not mean it is smart or recommended to wear them for that long without changing them. Though it is possible in an emergency and when seriously limited amounts of masks are available.
For the best protection, and to be confident in being safe, and keeping those around you safe, masks should be changed regularly. If they get wet, dirty, or you touch them, or you have other reasons to believe they may be contaminated, play it safe and replace them.
It is hard to imagine a situation in which it makes sense to wear any mask for longer than the recommended amount of time.
The only conceivable exception for this may be if you are running a 15-hour shift in a hospital or you are trapped somewhere with no access to a clean mask. Even then, be aware that the degree of protection you are getting is likely declining as the mask is increasingly likely to get contaminated.
N95s are designed as disposable masks.
It is not a mask for reuse. It should only be worn once, by one person. They are single-use products.
So, what happens if your hospital or employer failed to order enough masks? Or you forgot to order another month’s supply of masks for yourself and your family and you are waiting on a delivery?
As a part of a crisis capacity strategy, some hospitals have been testing decontamination methods, and which do the least damage to the functional integrity of N95 masks.
Remember, N95 masks are made to be single-use, disposable masks.
These decontamination methods are only theories and are still being tested. Any reuse or cleaning of masks is going to deteriorate their filtration effectiveness and degree of protection.
None of these are recommended for home or amateur use. Rather they are being tested by healthcare facilities with the capabilities to conduct these cleaning methods professionally, safely, and scientifically. Don’t try this at home, or as a DIY effort to save money, instead of protecting your workers with clean, new masks.
Among the best-performing methods being studied so far include:
- Hydrogen peroxide vaporization
- UV light
- Steam or dry heat
If not dirty or contaminated at all, the next best solution is to rotate masks. Setting them aside in a sterile environment until infectious disease particles die off, and are no longer contagious. This may provide an extra use or two from N95 masks. However, scientists may not yet agree on exactly how long it takes for the virus to die and contact transmission to no longer be a concern.
Whatever you do, don’t wash an N95 mask in soapy water. This causes the most damage to the mask. Leaving you far more exposed to infection and at risk of spreading the disease to others.
How long can you wear an N95 mask? Masks should only be worn for a few hours at a time. Or only until they get dirty or may be contaminated. These are disposable masks, you should only wear once, and do not share with others.
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