If you work in the Canadian healthcare industry, you must have firsthand experience of the critical equipment shortage seen during the first wave of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).
Now that COVID-19 is back with full force, you might be thinking about extending the use of your personal protective equipment (PPE) supply to avoid another shortfall of critical PPE.
This especially holds true for the N95 mask, which is one of the most important PPE pieces for any frontline healthcare worker.
Here’s a lowdown on how long you can use your N95 face mask safely to help you through this uncertain situation. Learn more.
Does Using the N95 Mask Come With a Specific Timeframe?
Due to the way the N95 filtering facepiece respirator (FFR) is designed, it is only intended for single-use purposes. This means that until you are under a crisis scenario, it’s advised that you don’t use it for an infinite period of time.
In Non-medical Settings
The actual period of a single-use session depends on the setting where you are wearing this mask. According to various studies, the N95 FFR can be utilized in non-medical or dust-prone environments for up to 8 hours.
This period can be consistent or broken up into multiple sessions. However, if the mask is taken off a few times before being worn again, its overall effectiveness can become compromised.
With that being said, this only remains an estimate, and the actual time can depend upon your actual use setting.
In Medical Settings
The N95 respirator can also last a few hours in viral settings such as COVID-19 treatment rooms. However, there is no conclusive study that outlines the exact duration for the mask’s performance in healthcare scenarios.
It is also advised that those using the N95 mask in a viral setting discard it after each patient interaction. However, some workers can use it for several hours before taking it off.
The overall duration of the mask’s functionality depends on the environment and settings where it is being used. This is due to the mask’s design and the material that it uses.
It’s Important to Understand Why the Duration Depends on Your Usage
To start with, the respirator is made from a synthetic material that decontaminates the surrounding air for the wearer. Recall that the mask filters at least 95 percent of external particles that could come in the form of dust, mists, and fumes.
As a result, the FFR makes sure that its users can stay safe from elements including but not limited to harmful particles, viruses, and smoke. This feature also makes way for the “95” in the mask’s name.
Apart from its material, the N95 FFR’s fit-tested structure is one of the significant factors that make sure the mask works in highly contaminated settings. By using the edges that stick around the wearer’s mouth, nose, and chin, the mask ensures that no unfiltered air escapes through the cracks.
Instead of an ear loop design that is often seen in surgical masks or medical masks, the N95 mask uses two bands that wrap around the top and the bottom of the wearer’s head. This also adds to the overall fit and prevents leakage from around the edges.
But as mentioned above, this particular system is not infallible. For one, the non-woven plastic fiber material that’s used in these masks can only filter so much air by itself. Reliable manufacturers typically use polypropylene fiber for this purpose. While the material is a high performance, it cannot block out contaminants indefinitely.
Secondly, while these masks are professionally-fitted, they do not maintain their impeccable fit or seal through infinite use. According to various studies, the more you move these masks on and off of your face, the more they degrade in terms of performance.
There Are a Few Exceptions for Reuse in Crisis Settings
It is advised that when you are using your N95 respirator in a non-medical setting, you change it after a few hours. As mentioned above, this usually translates to up to 8 hours of consistent or sporadic use within a single session. However, that is not always the case.
When it comes to medical settings, the rules get more stringent. Most healthcare experts advise that you replace the mask after each patient contact or visit a ward with infectious disease patients. If you are taking breaks, you need to dispose of the mask and then wear a new one altogether to ensure optimal safety.
It’s because using an N95 mask in a non-medical scenario is quite different from utilizing it in a medical setting. While taking your mask off affects its fit in both situations, your respirator gets more compromised in a medical environment due to the viral agents that it is consistently exposed to during your activities.
When you touch your respirator to get it off of your face after visiting a COVID-19 treatment ward, the viral agents that may have landed on its exterior can create risks of cross-contamination. Similarly, when you try to put a used mask back on, it can increase your chances of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19.
That is why you must follow the manufacturer’s instructions about discarding single-use masks right away. To make sure that your masks can extend their ability of protection, you can use a face shield to reduce their exposure to contaminants as well as splashes or splatter of bodily fluids.
Never Reuse a Disposable FFR Unless You Have No Other Options
With this in mind, if you need to follow extended use for the supply you have, make sure not to use one respirator more than five times.
It’s also important to wear disposable gloves when you take off your N95 mask or put it on while working in viral settings. This ensures that you reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
If you are buying these masks to use them in non-medical settings, you can be a bit more relaxed with safety precautions. However, it is still crucial to remember that you don’t use your mask for more than 8 hours at most or as recommended by your mask manufacturer.