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Just how effective are surgical masks anyway?

If there is anything that is synonymous with a hospital setting, it is the surgical mask. It is almost as common for medical personnel as the standard scrubs are. The idea of a surgical mask is that it is to protect against the transmission of germs. But are surgical masks as effective as they are thought to be, especially considering the throes of flu season and the recent outbreaks of the measles?

A recent article explored that question.

Essentially, the effectiveness of a surgical mask depends on two major factors: the location of the sick individual and the method in which germs are transmitted. 

Of course, in close quarters, a surgical mask may be particularly effective in preventing germs from being transmitted to uninfected individuals. So family members living in the same house may enjoy a greater level of protection when masks are used than without. However, when worn in public or in places with a great deal of traffic (i.e. a train station or shopping mall) it is unknown whether the mask continues to be as effective.

The avenue of transmission is also important in determining a mask’s effectiveness. Indeed, a mask is effective in shielding uninfected people from the large particles that can be expelled when a person sneezes or coughs, but the common mask is not airtight. So smaller particles that contain the virus could escape and infect other people.

Ultimately, using surgical masks can be effective, but hand washing and getting vaccines offer the best protections against airborne contagions. 

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