How to choose a facemask.

How to Choose a Face Mask for Pandemic Flu Outbreaks

Every year the government gets worked up about people getting flu shots. They try to guess what strain of influenza is going to the next big one: Is it going to be the H1N1 swine flu virus, the H5N1 bird flu, or a completely new strain? Viruses evolve, and if a flu virus that isn’t transmittable to humans gains the ability for efficient and sustained transmission between people, a pandemic will result. That is where protective equipment such as respirators and  surgical masks come in. They are important pieces of gear that will help you to avoid and limit the spread of the flu.

There are two broad categories of face masks that are used during flu outbreaks: surgical masks and respirators. They are completely different and you need to understand their different roles.

Surgical Masks

Surgical masks are primarily designed to protect the environment or patient from the wearer. They have a very loose fit and are not designed as personal protective equipment because contaminants can get in around the edges of the mask. However, they are effective for their ability to resit splashes of blood and other bodily fluids. They are designed to be worn only once and then thrown away.


Respirators on the other hand are designed as personal protective equipment and protect the wearer from exposure to airborne particulates, including airborne pathogens. You will want to wear a respirator if you are well and are going to get into contact with people who are confirmed or suspected of having pandemic flu.

Respirators have a tight fit and are designed to be worn by individuals who have a cleanly shaven face. It is best to have training in how to use a respirator properly, but in lieu of that the wearer should at the very least read all of the instructions that come with the device. Respirator masks come in different sizes; make sure yours fits and seals properly.

N95 Respirator

If you want a mask that protects from both airborne contaminants and bodily fluids you can use the surgical N95 respirator. The N95 is the most common of the seven classes of NIOSH approved respirators on the market. The N95 is made from a micro fiber media that filters at least 95% of airborne particles, but isn’t resistant to oil. Here are some other facts you should know:

  • They are designed as a respirator so should never be worn loosely.
  • Similar to surgical masks, they should be thrown away when used during surgery.
  • You should also throw away any N95 respirators that have been contaminated with blood, respiratory secretions, or any other bodily fluids from patients.
  • Otherwise, they can be used and reused until they become contaminated or damaged.

Other Respirators

There are six other classifications of respirators that have been approved by NIOSH. They are:

  • N99 – Filters at least 99% of airborne particles. Not resistant to oil.
  • N100- Filters at least 99.97% of airborne particles. Not resistant to oil.
  • R95- Filters at least 95% of airborne particles. Somewhat resistant to oil.
  • P95- Filters at least 95% of airborne particles. Strongly resistant to oil.
  • P99- Filters at least 99% of airborne particles. Strongly resistant to oil.
  • P100- Filters at least 99.97% of airborne particles. Strongly resistant to oil.


Choosing a face mask for pandemic flu outbreaks becomes easier when you understand the different roles that the masks have. If you are seriously considering getting any of these masks, I suggest that you get them before an outbreak occurs. Shortages are common, especially when there is talk about pandemics in the news.

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