For much of the pandemic, cloth and surgical masks were the best many of us could get. Now that masks like the N95 and KN95 are more widely available, should we be wearing those?
Dr. McEver Prescribes
Although cloth masks remain better than no face covering, they offer limited protection from Covid-19 infection, especially the highly contagious omicron variant. Now that we have more robust masking options, upgrading makes sense.
The higher the quality of the mask, the fewer viral particles it will let through. That viral load appears key in whether exposure leads to infection and how sick you get if you’re infected.
A study with nearly 350,000 adults in India found that the use of surgical masks reduced infections more effectively than cloth masks. This was consistent with laboratory results showing that surgical masks have higher filtration efficiency than cloth masks.
An N95 respirator (named for its ability to filter up to 95% of airborne particles) and its close relative the KN95 give even better protection. In a meta-analysis published in the Journal of the American College of Emergency Physicians, researchers found that N95 use among health care workers decreased the risk of a host of viral respiratory illnesses compared to health care workers who wore surgical masks.
This makes sense. N95 and KN95 respirators provide a tighter fit on the face than surgical masks, minimizing leakage around the edges. They also offer more effective filtration, especially from smaller airborne particles.
While a well-fitting N95 or KN95 is the gold standard, the best mask is one you’ll wear consistently and correctly. If you find an N95 or similar mask uncomfortable for daily use, opt for them when the risk is greatest: crowded, indoor situations.
If you don’t have an N95 or KN95, wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask can also enhance protection. But whatever type you use, make sure it completely covers your mouth and nose and fits snugly against the sides of your face.
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