The omicron variant of COVID-19 has health authorities encouraging folks to upgrade from cloth masks to N95s, KN95s or at the very least, surgical masks.
Dr. Elizabeth Matsui, an allergist, immunologist and epidemiologist at the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas at Austin, explains the updated recommendations and the differences in mask types.
Why do I need to upgrade my mask?
At the beginning of the pandemic, the higher grade masks were not as available and needed to be reserved for medical professionals. They are now available in stores and online.
Omicron also has changed mask recommendations because of its transmissibility: Omicron is at least twice as transmissible a delta, which was twice that of alpha, which was twice that of the original strain.
"We need to up our mask game to help prevent transmission to other people and to protect ourselves against getting infected," Matsui says.
Cloth masks were helpful, she says, but we now have more effective masks.
Masks work by preventing you from exhaling the virus into the air and by preventing you from inhaling virus into your nose and mouth. When two people are together, it's best if both are wearing masks, but there is some level of protection even if only one of the two people is wearing a mask. If you cannot control that everyone around you is both wearing a mask and wearing one that is high quality and properly fitting, you can at least protect yourself some by wearing one.
How much the mask reduces the risk of COVID-19 depends on the level of the mask, Matsui says. "If you yourself wear an N95 or N95-like mask, you're going to be highly protected even if you enter a public indoor space where someone is infected," she says.
What are the different types of masks I can buy?
Surgical masks are better than cloth masks, but they do allow for gaps on the sides between the face and the mask. They have a quality stamp or grading on them. You want a level 3 or level 2.
The N95 masks are the most effective. Most have two straps rather than ear loops. The straps go at the back of the top of the head and at the neck to help ensure there are no gaps.
The KN95 masks are also effective, but have ear loops, which make them more likely to not fit flush against the face. The KF94 masks, which come from South Korea, are not as effective as N95, but very close.
The prices of these masks vary, but N95s typically sell for $2-$3 a piece, KN95s are $1-$2 each and KF94s are less than $1 each.
How do I know if I have a fraudulent mask?
Buy from a reputable source. The Federal Trade Commission recommends looking up the company name, the seller name or the manufacturer name along with the words "scam," "complaint" or "review" in an internet search engine to see if there have been complaints. If the mask is from 3M, you can search that company's website to make sure that mask is made by the company, or you can buy directly from 3M. Words like NIOSH-approved can help, but sometimes fraudulent ones have had those words as well.
How should a mask fit?
It should fit flush against the face without leaks at the side. It also should be secured at the bridge of the nose with a wire clip. Adults with smaller heads might need to buy a kid's size.
My cloth masks are cute. Do I have to throw them away?
If you love your cloth mask and can wear it over the other masks and still breathe, then go for it. Or if you can't find an N95 or KN95 that fits you, double mask with a surgical mask on the bottom and a cloth mask on top.
Can you re-wear a mask?
Unlike cloth masks, you are not going to wash a surgical mask, an N95 or a KN95. You can re-wear them, but you should put them in a paper bag for about two days between uses. Wash your hands before putting on the mask, and hold the sides of the mask, not the part that will touch your nose and mouth, when putting on the mask. When you take off a mask, handle the mask at the edges and wash your hands afterward.
This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: Understanding the type of COVID-19 masks: N95, KN95, KF94, surgical