The Difference Between A Surgical Maskand A Respirator

- Apr 03, 2020-

To prevent the spread of infectious diseases, many people reach for face masks — and when pandemics like the coronavirus occur, there are sometimes even mask shortages among the general public. But experts say masks aren’t always the best route for warding off infection, and in the case of coronavirus, the CDC is specifically advising that people do not need to wear face masks unless a health care worker specifically recommends it to you, or you work in health care yourself, you already have COVID-19, or are taking care of someone who does.

According to Michael Chang, an infectious disease specialist at McGovern Medical School at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, masks are usually used by health care providers in hospitals and clinics, where the risk of transmitting or catching an illness is higher.


“In the health care setting we primarily use masks to isolate people both the people who are taking care of patients as well as protecting the patients from the providers potentially spreading something to them,” he says. “They can offer two-way protection.”


There are two types of masks used in preventing infections: surgical masks and respirator masks. It’s important to know the difference, and which situations they’re useful in, as well as when other wellness hygiene tactics might better serve you.


How are respirator masks different from surgical masks?

Surgical masks and respirator masks serve different purposes, so they are designed differently. Andrew Stanley Pekosz, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, says surgical masks are basically small pieces of cloth people use to keep the germs from their coughs and sneezes to themselves, or to prevent picking up other people’s viruses and bacteria. “It’s really a general physical block to prevent major amounts of fluid from accessing your mouth,” Pekosz tells Allure.

Respirator masks, Pekosz says, are more sturdily designed than surgical masks, and they contain a respirator that prevents much smaller particles from passing through to a person’s respiratory system. Two of the most common respirator masks are N-95 masks and N-99 masks, which, when used correctly, prevent 95 percent and 99 percent, respectively, of airborne particles from entering a person’s mouth or nose.

Because they filter out smaller particles, respirator masks also typically protect against different kinds of pathogens, according to Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease physician with Northwestern Medicine. Surgical masks protect against droplet-spread infections, like influenza and other common respiratory infections. N-95 and N-99 respirator masks can protect against airborne illnesses like measles, chickenpox, or tuberculosis.

Pekosz says most illnesses are spread by droplets, which means a respirator mask is considered a higher-level method of protection only needed for airborne illnesses. If doctors aren’t sure about the way a disease spreads — like in the early stages of an outbreak — Hafiz says doctors would recommend a higher level of protection with a respirator mask.

When are respirator masks used?

Sometimes, Hafiz says, if a patient is sick and being transported or if someone is coughing in the waiting room, doctors might put a surgical or respirator mask — depending on the suspected illness — on a patient to temporarily avoid transmitting sickness to others. But that’s the exception to the rule: Most of the time, it’s the health care providers who wear masks, not patients or the general public, Hafiz tells Allure.

Chang says health care providers commonly wear surgical masks in the operating room to prevent large particles from contaminating the surgical sites. And if a doctor suspects a viral or bacterial infection in a patient, health care workers might wear surgical masks to prevent catching the illness if the patient coughs or sneezes. “Surgical masks can protect the provider from any large droplets a patient might generate,” he says. If a health care professional is worried about airborne infectious diseases, Chang says they may upgrade to an N-95 or N-99 mask.