What are Exam Masks?

Mary McMahon

Exam masks are a form of facial protection worn by health care providers to prevent the spread of bacteria and viruses. The mask covers the mouth and nose, ensuring that aerosolized droplets from a health care provider do not land on a patient, potentially spreading infection. Patients may also wear masks on occasion, and more generally, exam masks are sometimes worn by ordinary civilians in heavily polluted areas or during periodic cold and flu seasons. Medical suppliers and many drugstores stock exam masks.

Exam masks are most often worn by healthcare professionals to prevent the spread of germs.
Exam masks are most often worn by healthcare professionals to prevent the spread of germs.

Health care providers wear exam masks for the protection of their patients. As a provider breathes, he or she sheds numerous tiny droplets of water which can be laden with a variety of organisms which could cause disease. In a patient who is immunocompromised, these organisms could cause a serious illness, and in ordinary patients, the transmission of such organisms could still lead to the spread of disease.

Dentists tend to wear exam masks while examining and treating patients both to protect the patient, and to protect themselves, because dental procedures can lead to bleeding, spitting, and coughing, all of which can spread aerosolized droplets. A version of the exam mask is also worn by staff in surgical suites, to ensure that the patient is not exposed to disease while he or she is operated on. Doctors may also choose to wear exam masks during examinations and procedures which might involve aerosolized blood and other body fluids.

Like other forms of barrier protection used in health care, exam masks are disposable. Doctors change them between patients, and they may even change an exam mask during the course of a procedure. Masks are usually paired with exam gloves, a form of disposable barrier protection for the hands. Doctors can also choose to wear exam gowns over their clothes to protect their clothing and reduce the spread of disease between patients.

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While an exam mask can feel alienating to a patient because it hides the nose and mouth of the health care provider, it is an important aspect of the procedures undertaken to promote patient safety. Some doctors wear patterned exam masks to make the mask feel more homey, especially in the case of pediatricians, as young patients are generally more cooperative when they feel comfortable. Patients who know that they have a communicable disease may also request an exam mask for the safety of other people in a facility where they are receiving treatment; such requests are usually happily accommodated.

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