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Can a Mask Protect You from SARS?

Separating Fact from Fiction about Surgical Masks and SARS

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Surgical masks also provide no protection for the eyes, and some types of virus particles can enter the body through the eyes as well as the mouth and nose.

In addition, some types of coronaviruses are known to survive on objects for several hours, which means it's possible that person with SARS person could sneeze and infect an object like a door knob that is later touched by someone who then rubs their eyes, nose, or mouth and becomes infected in that manner.

For protecting people from SARS infection, the CDC recommends that healthcare providers who care for SARS patients wear a much more efficient mask known as an N95 respirator. This type of mask is certified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as being effective at filtering out at least 95% of airborne particles of a particular size.

There are also N99 and N100 masks that are even more efficient, but N95 masks are considered the standard for preventing infection from most known viruses.

But for these masks to work, they must be properly fitted to make sure there are no gaps between the mask and the skin. The mask is made of a thicker material than regular surgical masks and, when properly fitted, does not allow air to flow outside the mask.

Gerberding says N95 masks are only recommended for healthcare workers caring for SARS patients because they are at greatest risk of becoming infected. In fact, the majority of initial SARS cases were among doctors, nurses, and medical students who cared for the first round of SARS patients and did not wear such protection. Since infection control measures such as wearing N95 masks were implemented, the rate of SARS spread to healthcare workers has been drastically reduced.

"We don't recommend N95 masks for the general public. We don't recommend N95 masks for patients," says Gerberding. "We are recommending surgical masks for patients if they're well enough to wear one, and we're using those N95 masks in the healthcare environment in hospitals where we've got sick patients most likely to be aerosolizing relatively high concentrations of infectious material."

To reduce the risk of SARS transmission in the general public, the CDC recommends following good hygiene practices, such as frequent hand washing and use of alcohol-based rubs, and avoiding areas where SARS is known to have been spread.

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