It is that time of the year when the north of India is grappling with deteriorating air quality. But, this year the situation is more complicated.
As India, along with the rest of the world, is battling the COVID-19 pandemic – which is predominantly a respiratory illness – the impact of air pollution is expected to be severe.
For starters, you have already been wearing masks for months now due to the pandemic. But are you wearing the right kind of mask to battle both pollution and coronavirus? Should you even be wearing masks in first place?
Do masks actually help during pollution season?
To put it simply, masks don't guarantee 100 percent filter against polluted air. However, multiple studies reveal that people showed reduced effects of breathing in polluted air than those who don't wear masks.
Will air pollution increase the risk of COVID-19?
Isolated studies from different parts of the world have signalled a proportionate relationship between polluted air and COVID severity. Most notable is an ecological study from Harvard University, which found that even a small increase in PM2.5 levels was associated with an 8% increase in COVID-19-related deaths.
Nevertheless, more research is needed into this area to make conclusive statements, experts have said.
I have been wearing a cloth mask due to COVID. Should I continue wearing that?
Not if you have access and can afford an N95 or N99 mask.
If you are living in Delhi-NCR or places which will see a huge spike in pollution as winter arrives, it is better to ditch your single-layer cloth masks. The same is the case for wearing a scarf or a bandana over your face – it will not filter polluted particles.
But, is cloth mask effective against COVID but not against pollution?
Wearing any mask is better than wearing no mask, says Dr Arun Sharma, Professor, University College of Medical Sciences, Delhi.
“All masks act as a barrier to prevent particulate matter. But the efficiency varies from one another. While basic masks work well to filter droplets, it does not prevent airborne particles like N95,” says Dr Sharma, adding that maintenance of the mask plays a key role in preventing polluted particles from entering.
What are the different options I have before me?
According to the Dr Sharma, who has researched extensively on pollution levels in Delhi-NCR:
N95 masks are the most basic and best option you have to protect yourself from both pollution and COVID. A 95 code means they can filter up to 95 percent of the harmful PM 2.5 fine particulate matter that is the major cause of ailments in your body.
You can also opt for N99 mask, which is a slightly better option. This basically denotes that this mask will filter out 99 percent of 2.5 fine particulate matter. But just like the N95 air masks, these are also not resistant to oil and oil-based pollutants.
Are N95 and N99 single-use masks?
No, both these masks come in varieties that are both disposable and non-disposable.
In case you are stepping out every day, wearing a non-disposable mask, it is advisable to buy 2-3 masks and use them alternatively.
Should I opt for masks with or without valves?
Dr Deshdeepak, Senior Chest Physician, Dr Ram Manohar Lohiya hospital told news agency ANI that one should opt for masks without valves.
"Till last year we were saying that those who have a problem in breathing can use N95 mask with valve as it makes breathing easier. However, this year situation is very much different where we have both pollution and COVD- 19 we cannot recommend using N95 with valve."
Dr Sharma says that this is because masks with valves have a “one-way mechanism.” While they filter the polluted particles/virus droplets from entering your respiratory system, when you breathe out, it transmits the particles back into the air and could put someone else at risk.
Given the severity of COVID-19 virus, masks with valve is not recommended during the period when air pollution is high.
Should I be wearing masks indoors?
While there is no official guidelines on this, if the pollution levels enter extremely high levels or if the AQI hits the red zone, residents of Delhi-NCR may have to wear mask indoors to protect themselves.
“If you are in a room which has frequent exchange of air from outdoors – say a window or a door – then there will not be much difference with the AQI level indoor. In this case, the air inside your house will be as polluted as outside and it may be advisable to wear masks at all times,” Dr Sharma added.
Why maintaining your mask properly is most essential?
Not maintaining mask hygiene could cause more harm than good. You need to:
Wear your mask properly – cover your nose and mouth
Avoid wearing your mask on chin when not in use
Make sure that you wash your mask regularly and air dry them
Do not touch your mask frequently when wearing it
Store your mask in an air-tight packet or at a designated space
Always remove your mask only after washing your hands
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