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Choosing the Right Face Mask for the Immunocompromised

Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, and ethnicity. However, there are some groups of people who are immunocompromised, and therefore may be more vulnerable to contracting such a virus. For the immunocompromised, the best thing to do right now is take preventative measures like wearing the right face mask when going out into the community is unavoidable. After all, prevention is the best cure.

In just a moment we’ll talk about the best way to choose a face mask so as to provide as much protection to an immunocompromised individual as possible. First, though, it’s important to understand as much about the virus as possible.

How does the coronavirus spread?

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Coronavirus can spread from an infected person to a non-infected individual if the former coughs or sneezes on the latter. However, there have also been cases of spreading between people who did not experience coughing or sneezing during contact. 

People who are within 6 feet of an infected person have a higher chance of infection. If an infected person transfers the virus into the air, the infected droplets can travel through space and land on someone else’s nose, mouth, eyes, or hands. If they touch their faces with their hands, or the virus finds another way in, the previously uninfected person may now be at risk.

What symptoms accompany COVID-19?

Coronavirus is a relatively new disease in humans, so researchers are still unsure about the symptoms. However, a few things are known. An infected person often experiences fever, tiredness, and/or a dry cough. 

In some cases, the following symptoms may also be noted:

  • Nasal congestion
  • A sore throat
  • Diarrhea
  • A runny nose
  • Aches and pains
  • A temporary loss of the sense of taste or smell

It can take anywhere from 1 to 14 days for the virus to start showing symptoms in an infected individual. Many people affected by COVID-19 experience mild to moderate symptoms and are able to recover on their own. Recovery is primarily governed by a person’s natural immunity or disease-fighting ability, which is another reason the immunocompromised should take special care.

How natural immunity influences the coronavirus

The coronavirus can affect anyone; viruses do not discriminate. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the body’s natural immune system can overcome the virus and achieve a complete recovery from COVID-19. However, an individual’s immunity is unique. Some people have a stronger immune system than others.

Who is immunocompromised?

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Immunosuppression is often a side effect of other medical conditions (or their treatments), such as AIDS, cancer, malnutrition, or diabetes. Patients who have had an organ transplant also have suppressed immune systems. However, theirs is artificially compressed; if their body was allowed to fight infections and maintain its natural immunity, it would instead attack the transplanted organ.

People over 65 are considered at a higher risk level, though they may not be immunocompromised in other ways. COVID-19 is already notorious for having a more severe effect on senior citizens, which means they should use the same caution as other immunocompromised parties. 

In addition, some individuals are simply more prone to catching whatever comes around. They should also consider extra precautions, even if they do not consider themselves to actually be immunocompromised.

How to prevent catching the coronavirus

Anyone who is exposed to the coronavirus has a high chance of contracting it. However, if their immune system is strong enough, they may not show any obvious signs of infection and may simply act as carriers. However, immunocompromised individuals are more likely to actually express symptoms upon catching the virus and are unlikely to become just carriers.

Hence, proper steps should be taken to prevent oneself from catching the coronavirus. As an immunocompromised person, here are a few things you can do to prevent viral transmission:

  • Wash your hands every hour with soap and warm water. This simple act can save lives! Rinse and rub your hands under running water for at least 20 seconds to ensure that all the pathogens have washed off.
  • Use hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable. However, sanitizers do not kill most viruses but can prevent other infections, particularly those caused by bacteria.
  • Practice self-isolation and social distancing. Try to stay home or within an isolated, safe space. Staying away from potentially infected people can make a real difference.
  • Cover your face. Using a face mask can prevent viral transmission. However, it is important to choose the right mask. Otherwise, your efforts may be in vain.

Keeping these guidelines in mind can help you stay safe from the coronavirus, and other pathogens, too.

Choosing the right face mask for the immunocompromised

There are many different masks available on the market, but, despite manufacturer claims, some of these face masks do little to stop the coronavirus from entering your respiratory system.
Here is a list of different face masks currently being sold around the world.

Cycling masks

As indicated by their name, cycling masks are intended for use by people cycling through polluted areas. These masks can prevent larger particles, especially dust, from entering the mouth and nose. While they do offer some protection from airborne particles, they are helpless in the face of smaller particles.

Cloth masks

Perhaps the most common variety of face masks, cloth masks come in many different styles and colors, with many even flaunting bold prints and fun designs. These masks offer diminished protection against virus transmission, so while they are preferable to not wearing a mask at all, they are not ideal for medical workers or the immunocompromised.


Although not a literal mask, many people have taken to wearing bandanas, or even old t-shirts, in an attempt to keep the coronavirus at bay. Like cloth masks, these offer diminished protection. If you must use a bandana, look for one with the smallest possible holes in the weave. You can test this by holding it up to the light. 

As you can see, these three types of masks do not provide the level of protection immunocompromised individuals require. They would do better to choose from one of the following options:

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Surgical face masks

Surgical masks are not the same as regular, everyday masks like cycling or cloth masks. They are mostly used by medical professionals and are constructed from multiple layers of different materials that can provide protection from smaller particles when compiled. These are somewhat loose-fitting devices that should not be reused or shared. They have a hydrophobic (water-resistant) outer layer and therefore keep water droplets that may contain pathogens, like saliva, at bay. 

The middle layer is a thorough filter, and the inner layer is a soft, absorbent, non-woven layer made from a skin-friendly composite fiber. These layers form a mesh through which it is difficult for small particles to pass. Surgical masks also have a metal wire which can be shaped to fit around the nose. This ensures that, when worn correctly, all invading particles are prevented from entering the nose and mouth region.

N95 respirators

These are special respiratory protective devices that resemble the shape of a mask. They have a closer fit than surgical masks and have displayed extreme efficiency in keeping out unwanted airborne particles. Before COVID-19, N95 respirators were largely unheard of by the general public. Now, they are more common than ever. These respirators are called “N95” because they guarantee blocking out at least 95% of particles that are smaller than 0.3 microns. This includes viruses and bacteria. Therefore, they are a good choice for immunocompromised individuals who can get their hands on one.

So which masks are best for the immunocompromised?

N95 respirators are better than face masks because they can keep out up to 95% of small particles, including pathogens like the coronavirus. However, surgical-grade face masks can also do an excellent job of keeping pathogens at bay. Keep in mind, though, that they have a looser fit than the N95 respirator mask and may have openings at the sides if not fastened correctly, hence increasing the risk of infection.

N95 respirators have a better fit than surgical masks. They can prevent pathogens from entering through any crevices, unlike loose-fitting surgical masks. On the other hand, N95 respirators are extremely difficult to breathe with. Some immunocompromised individuals may already find it difficult to breathe. For example, people with cystic fibrosis have trouble fighting infections as well as breathing, meaning that an N95 mask may be too much for their body to handle. For them, social distancing and a proper surgical mask may be a more realistic option.

How to wear a face mask

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If you choose to wear a face mask, it is important that you fasten it correctly. Otherwise, it will not provide complete protection. 

Surgical masks have an elastic band, or ties, that fit behind the ears. They also have a malleable metal strip or wire at the front that can be shaped to fit over the nose fully. The mask should be stretched to cover any open, gaping areas and ensure that the corners of the mask are in direct contact with your facial skin.

An N95 respirator works in a similar fashion. The ties should be tightly fastened behind your ears, and the cup-like filter at the front should be in direct contact with the skin.

Make sure not to tamper with your mask; masks have a tendency to catch and store viruses on their outer surface, and constantly touching them with your hands defeats the purpose of wearing one. The virus, if present on the mask, may transfer to your hands if touched, and, because our hands touch everything around us, we can easily spread the virus from our mask to our surroundings, reducing the mask’s effectiveness as well as putting others at risk.

Let’s review

While there will always be a chance of contracting the coronavirus, wearing the right mask can help reduce the likelihood of an immunocompromised person becoming ill. The best way to prevent catching COVID-19 is by practicing social distancing and not mingling with large crowds. Masks should not be abused, either, as there is currently a shortage of them in some parts of the world.

Masks are more important for people who are in direct contact with a coronavirus patient. Individuals experiencing symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 should also wear a mask to stop themselves from spreading the virus to others.

Immunocompromised people should use extra care during this time when they must leave home. Fortunately, at this time they are not considered more likely than the non-immunocompromised to experience a poor outcome if they do become ill with this coronavirus. However, there is no guarantee between life and death when it comes to COVID-19. By taking the right precautions, we can keep ourselves and the immunocompromised in our communities safer.

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