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Which mask should I choose to protect against influenza ?
Firstly, it must be made clear that masks will only REDUCE your risk of contracting influenza, not guarantee 100% protection. However, a mask, used in conjunction with good hand hygiene and infection control procedures, is the most effective way of reducing the risk of infection from pandemic influenza.
It’s vital that your mask fits well. It must create a good seal around your face, ensuring no leakage of air through the sides of the mask. A loose fitting mask is useless in increasing your protection levels against influenza.
Face masks are available in many different styles, offering different levels of protection. The most common and most economical face mask is the standard surgical mask. Beware of cheap, 2 layered, papery masks from retail chemists and the like. A good quality surgical mask should be 3 ply, having an inner hydrophilic layer (worn closest to the skin and absorbing moisture), a middle filter layer and an outer hydrophobic layer (meaning it repels water).
A standard surgical mask does not have to be tested for its efficiency in filtering out particles to meet Australian and International standards, however it must be able to filter bacteria to a level of 95% at 3.0 micron (3 millionths of a metre).
Another popular mask used in infection control is a P2, or N95, particulate respirator. An N95 respirator is able to filter out 95% of oil-free microscopic particles, down to 0.3 micron in size. The “N” stands for “Not oil proof”.
A surgical mask’s main function is to help CONTAIN droplets from being expelled into the environment by the infected wearer. Surgical masks are not designed to seal tightly around the face.
Governments around the world are stockpiling surgical masks in the event of a influenza pandemic. These masks are to predominantly be provided to people showing symptoms of influenza infection. The H5N1 influenza virus is so small that surgical masks aren’t as effective at filtering out the virus for healthy individuals as P2 masks. Fitted correctly however, surgical masks are useful in helping to contain the spread of virus from an infected person when coughing or sneezing.
Particulate respirators, such as P2’s, are specifically intended to aid in reducing a non-infected individual’s exposure to potentially infectious airborne particles. CRG Healthcare’s P2 respirators resemble surgical face masks, and are available with or without an exhalation valve. Exhalation valves ensure greater comfort by making breathing easier and the mask cooler to wear. Despite resembling surgical face masks, these respirators seal firmly around the face, reducing the risk of air leakage. If fitted correctly, with the nosepiece pressed firmly to the shape of the bridge of the nose, and no air leakage through the sides of the mask, the wearer should be able to breathe normally, with just a slight resistance noticeable. A good fit can only be achieved on the face if the area where the respirator seals against the skin is clean-shaven. Beards, long moustaches, and stubble may cause leaks around the respirator
Always follow the user instructions to ensure the correct donning procedure and fit-checks for respirators are used.
P2 (N95) masks provide higher protection than a standard surgical mask. It is N95-rated respirator masks that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US recommends health care workers wear when dealing with patients infected by SARS and influenza.
Duration of wear:
Any mask offers only limited protection, time wise. They must be changed regularly. A mask or P2 respirator’s filtration efficiency is severely compromised once the filter media is wet. For this reason, masks should be changed when noticeably moist, or after sneezing/coughing. Do not wear a mask for a full day and expect to be protected! Reduce the amount of talking when wearing a mask, as this will reduce the amount of condensation produced within the mask, and hence extend the effective life of the mask.
Never touch the front of a mask/’respirator when removing. This can lead to gross contamination of hands should the mask have become infected with any viral particles during wear.
All masks listed are single-use disposable masks, and should be placed straight into a bin once worn. Never share your mask with another, as the risk of infection can be high.
Wash your hands!
It is critical that hands are washed thoroughly upon removal of any facial protection. Be sure to remember, a mask/respirator alone does not guarantee immunity from influenza. Vigilant hand washing practices are an essential accompaniment to the wearing of all personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks.
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