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Mask up, ladies! It’s your effective shield against Covid-19 and air pollution

Updated on:23 November 2021, 11:13am IST
The Covid-19 scare hasn't ended yet, and the rising air pollution levels aren't giving any respite to people from flu and infections. Wearing a mask is one of your best bets to stay safe.
Radhika Bhirani
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Wear a mask, and stay safe. Image courtesy: Shutterstock
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Social distancing, handwashing and vaccines are non-negotiable ways to exercise precaution against the dreaded Covid-19, but wearing a mask cannot be ignored. While a mask continues to be a useful accessory and protective gear amidst the rising air pollution levels, a new study review published in The BMJ indicates that putting a mask on can reduce the incidence of Covid-19 by a significant margin.

The review indicated a statistically significant 53 per cent reduction in the incidence of Covid-19 with mask-wearing and a 25 percent reduction with physical distancing. This clearly spotlights the need to continue mask wearing, social distancing and handwashing alongside vaccine programmes. What’s more? It can safeguard you against air pollution too.

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Your lungs must be protected during the winter season. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

“We are facing two pandemics – Covid-19 and air pollution! Vaccination can help control Covid-19, but no one is immune to air pollution. Covid appropriate behaviour is the best strategy to prevent the transmission of Covid-19.  Masks are firefighting measures and a worthwhile investment,” Dr Rohini Kelkar MD., DPB., Senior Consultant, Infectious Diseases, Clinical Microbiology and Molecular Microbiology, Metropolis Healthcare Private Ltd, tells HealthShots.

Covid-19 and air pollution

As the threat of another wave of Covid-19 looms large, the expert points out that the virus can ride high on air pollution.

“Covid-19 is transmitted via large particles called droplets generated during coughing and sneezing or smaller particles called aerosols generated during speaking and breathing which flow with the air currents. The virus can remain viable and infectious in aerosols for hours and on surfaces for days. Air pollution from particulate matter consists of dust, dirt, soot, smoke and drops of liquid,” explains Dr Kelkar.

While the large particles like smoke are visible, small size particles 2.5µ are not. The latter can act as a carrier for droplet nuclei boosting the spread of the virus.

“Air pollution damages the lungs and can result in higher deaths from Covid-19. In clean air, with atmospheric agitation, droplets with virus evaporate or disperse into the atmosphere. In a stable atmosphere with high concentrations of particulate matter, viruses have a high probability of agglomerating with the particles and reducing their diffusion coefficient, increasing their amount of time and permanence in the atmosphere, and becoming more contagious. This is indeed a dangerous combination,” Dr Kelkar tells HealthShots.

The expert points at a recent Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) report, which concluded:

  • High levels of air pollution affect the defence mechanisms against infections making them more susceptible to Covid-19
  • Exposure to air pollution is a risk factor for persons with Covid-19 to develop serious complications including the need for hospitalization, mechanical ventilation, severe infection, and death
  • Poor air quality can worsen Covid-19’s toll on the body as well as increase its ability to spread
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It’s not only our lung health that’s on the line when it comes to the impact of air pollution. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock
Wearing a mask can slow the transmission of Covid-19. Does this also offer protection against air pollution?

Wearing a mask protects you and the people around you and it works best when everyone wears one, says Dr Kelkar.

But there are rules to wear masks. Follow these tips:
1. Masks should completely cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly against the sides of the face without gaps.
2. Avoid touching the outer surface of the masks and wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol after touching or removing your mask.
3. Change the mask if it gets wet. This reduces the effectiveness and respiratory droplets can leak.
4. Masks should be worn indoors in public spaces. Wearing a mask outdoors will protect you from air pollution as well.
5. There are several types of masks namely cloth, surgical and N-95.
6. The cloth masks recommended are those made of breathable fabric like cotton and cotton blends, tightly woven into two or three layers. These can be washed and reused.

Types of masks

Medical procedure masks or surgical masks are disposable and of non-woven fabric in three layers with a filter in the middle layer. These are single use disposable masks.N-95 masks filter out the smallest particles and are tight fitting. They require “NIOSH” certification and should be used following a ‘fit test’ to ensure that no particles leak. This mask offers the best possible protection against Covid-19 and air pollution. These are disposable masks.

Cloth masks allow small particles to pass through the fibres. This doesn’t mean that they provide ‘zero’ protection against air pollution, but 15 to 30 percent of particles are blocked, so a cloth mask is better than nothing! Pollutants also pass through the gaps of surgical and cloth masks because neither fit well.

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Wearing a mask is a simple way that can prevent covid-19 infection. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Surgical masks are made of tightly woven fibres and if it is held up against sunlight the light does not pass through.

According to Dr Kelkar, N-95 offers the highest protection against Covid-19 and air pollution followed by surgical and cloth masks.

The common belief that wearing a mask makes you sick and you breathe too much carbon dioxide is a myth!

Using an N-95 mask outdoors during vigorous exercise can reduce the performance of athletes due to increased resistance to breathing and result in fatigue.

With the impending gloom and rising levels of air pollution, it is certainly advisable to “kill to birds with one mask”!

Radhika Bhirani Radhika Bhirani

Content Head for Healthshots.