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How respirators work, and who needs to wear a face mask

respirator nurse n95 mask health care worker medical respirator nurse n95 mask health care worker medical
Respirators, like the N95 face masks, are necessary to protect health care workers from illness.
Samara Heisz/Getty Images

Respirators, more commonly known as face masks, are meant to keep health care and emergency workers safe from chemicals and infectious particles. 

Surgical masks can be helpful if you are sick, as they prevent the wearer's germs from spreading to other people. If you're a health care worker, and want to protect yourself from acquiring an illness or breathing in other dangerous particles, a respirator will be more effective

Here's what you need to know about the different types of respirators, how they work, and who might need one.  

How respirators work 

A respirator is a device that covers your nose and mouth and protects you from inhaling dangerous airborne substances, such as chemicals or infectious particles. 

There are specific types of respirators for different scenarios, including:

  • Escape respirators, which are intended for use in emergencies only, such as a fire or the release of chemical vapors. These respirators are meant to protect you while you move to safety and are typically designed for short term use up to one hour.
  • Gas masks, which clean chemical gasses out of the air as you breathe. Gas mask cartridges filter particular biological or chemical substances, but there is no cartridge that protects you from all substances, so gas masks are only effective if you're using the correct cartridge for the hazard you're facing. 
  • Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPR) use the same filters as gas masks, but make breathing easier by using a fan to blow air through the filter. 
  • Particulate respirators protect you against particles, but not chemicals, gases, or vapors. For example, health care workers use N95 masks, which cleans the air as you breathe and protects you from infectious particles, like the coronavirus. 

Particulate respirators protect health care workers 

Respirators, like the commonly found N95 face masks, help protect health care workers from breathing in infectious particles while they are treating patients who may be contagious. They have been particularly important during the coronavirus outbreak. 

"The N95 masks help filter out coronavirus particles so health care professionals aren't breathing them in," says Parshawn Lahiji, MD, emergency medicine physician and critical care medicine specialist and internist at Providence Saint John's Health Center. 

In addition to a shortage of medical equipment like ventilators, many hospitals across the country are also experiencing a shortage of personal protection equipment, like these N95 masks, putting the health and safety of health care workers at risk. 

In New York, some doctors are reusing N95 respirators by storing them in a bag and putting them on again later. Typically, these masks are intended for one-time use and doctors use a new one for each patient interaction. 

Respirators are necessary to protect health care workers, but the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend the use of respirators or N95 masks for the general public. Instead, the CDC recommends limiting exposure by staying home as much as possible, washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your face.  

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More: Health Explainers Health respirator N95
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