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JAMA Patient Page
March 4, 2020

Medical Masks

Author Affiliations
  • 1Fishbein Fellow, JAMA
  • 2Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, Massachusetts
JAMA. 2020;323(15):1517-1518. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.2331

Medical masks are a tool that can be used to prevent the spread of respiratory infection.

Medical masks are a type of personal protective equipment used to prevent the spread of respiratory infections. These masks cover the mouth and nose of the wearer and, if worn properly, may be effective at helping prevent transmission of respiratory viruses and bacteria.

There are 2 main types of masks used to prevent respiratory infection: surgical masks, sometimes referred to as face masks, and respirators. These masks differ by the type and size of infectious particles they are able to filter. Face masks are used more commonly for respiratory viruses that spread via droplets, which travel short distances and are transmitted by cough or sneeze. Face masks often fit loosely, and prevent the wearer from spreading large sprays and droplets, as well as preventing hand-to-face contact. N95 respirators block 95% of airborne particles. They are tight fitting and prevent inhalation of smaller infectious particles that can spread through the air over long distances after an infected person coughs or sneezes. Diseases that require use of an N95 respirator include tuberculosis, chickenpox, and measles. N95 respirators cannot be used by individuals with facial hair or by children because it is difficult to achieve a proper fit. In those cases, a special respirator called a powered air-purifying respirator may be used instead.

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