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Why Do Surgeons Wear Masks?

Surgeons cut people open and treat diseases through operations. Because of this, they make sure that there is no risk of bacterial infection or contamination — the lives of patients are at stake.

We imagine surgeons and operating room personnel wearing scrubs, rubber clogs, gowns, and gloves. All of these are used to block dirt, microbes, and particles from their hands and bodies.

But during the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of surgical masks is amplified both in the health care industry and the public’s consciousness.

It may be hard to believe, but the mouth is the dirtiest part of the human body. It is the home of billions of bacteria that thrive in the bits of food that we chew and swallow. Also, saliva can transmit viruses like common colds, rotavirus, hepatitis, and SARS-Cov-2.

Surgeons wear surgical masks to shield the patients from droplet transmissions, infections, and contamination. These also protect the sterile environment of the operating room including all of the professionals who work there routinely.

Why are masks important for surgeons?

In an article by the American Medical Association, one of the most prestigious medical organizations in the world, physicians emphasized the significance of surgical masks.

Masks are crucial in containing infectious microorganisms

Surgeons and operating room personnel stand for hours during surgeries. As they open their mouths, droplets and microbes might fall on the patient lying on the operating table.

They might also infect the tools they use to make incisions and adjustments on the body they are treating.

Furthermore, their surgical patients are likely immunocompromised — they suffer from a weakened or damaged immune system. Hence, surgical masks can protect such patients from infections and severe communicable diseases.

Masks protect their wearers without compromising their breathing

While masks limit bacteria, droplets, and other liquids from the surgeons’ mouth and nose, they do not impede their breathing. Surgeons and physicians can wear them for several hours without feeling discomfort, asthmatic, or short of oxygen.

Masks remind wearers from touching their nose and mouth

Surgeons follow strict guidelines on what they may touch and hold during operations. They must meet rigid sterile field protocols and safety measures as well.

Surgeons are humans too — they might forget these as they operate for long and exhausting hours. But touching their face is a serious breach of these rules. Masks help remind them so by covering their nose and mouth, lessening the risks of infections.

Masks shield the face of surgeons from surgical residue

Surgical operations can be messy. Blood, pus, and internal body waste can splash from the patient, hitting the surgeons and the operating room personnel.

Because of this, surgical masks are vital for the wearers’ safety. These can protect them from these harmful substances in the operating room. Such masks can also prevent accidental ingestions and exposure from their patients’ body liquids.

What is the history of surgeons wearing masks?

Masks have been a traditional part of medicine and surgeries. At our present time, patients expect physicians and surgeons to wear them during check-ups, treatment sessions, and surgical operations.

How is mask-wearing deeply ingrained in the culture of surgeons and their careers? This is the history of mask-wearing in the medical and surgical community.

Even before the science of medicine had been formalized in the 19th century, doctors covered their mouths and noses to avoid contagious diseases. But they did it for the wrong reason: they believed that illnesses spread through smelly air called miasma. Because of this, they laced their masks with spices and perfumes, thinking that the fragrance will defeat the cause of diseases.

But in 1867, Joseph Lister shared a revolutionary insight to the British medical community. He rejected the miasma and introduced the germ theory. Lister declared that diseases are not caused by the smell of waste and rotting corpses: they are brought by microscopic germs.

The germ theory transformed surgery. Surgeons started using antiseptic substances and techniques to kill microbes and prevent wound infections. They also realized that they might be carriers of these germs, especially their hands and tools.

Discoveries in the following years found out that disease-causing microbes not only spread through physical touch. Surgeons in the University of Breslau (in Poland) realized that respiratory droplets can transmit bacteria. In 1897, a few surgeons from Poland and France wore face masks out of gauze tied with strings.

Wearing face masks during surgeries was adopted throughout the Western nations, and they carried this practice to their colonies and territories.

The importance of wearing face masks was emphasized during plagues and pandemics. Medical workers wore this protection during an outbreak in China in 1910 followed by the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.

At first, face masks were only worn in the operating room and hospitals. However, during the 1918 pandemic, mandatory face mask regulations were imposed on physicians, nurses, policemen, and residents. These restrictions are linked to lower influenza death rates in San Francisco, California, among many other cities in the United States.

By 1935, it is estimated that most surgeons and operating room personnel had already worn masks routinely during surgeries.

Three decades later, the medical community began using disposable face masks made with synthetic components. These can be utilized only once since their fabric break over repeated use and sterilization.

Furthermore, these face masks can filter both incoming and outgoing air, blocking droplets and microbes. Also in the 60s, disposable surgical instruments and syringes were developed and manufactured. These reduced hospital costs and delays.

What are the diseases blocked by surgical face masks?

Because of the recent pandemic, surgical face masks are associated with the SARS-corona virus.

  • Flu virus
  • Epstein-Barr virus
  • Type 1 herpes
  • Hepatitis B
  • Hepatitis C
  • Cytomegalovirus
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