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What are the different kinds of medical PPE?

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The entire world is mired in the worst medical crisis anyone alive today has ever seen. As death tolls continue to climb and experts scramble to develop treatments and potentially a vaccine, citizens everywhere patiently carry on toward emerging back into daily life. Economies remain at a standstill and while there’s no way to tell what our world will look like going forward, millions of health care workers and other front line industries are going far above and beyond in efforts to keep people safe and healthy.

One term ubiquitous in everyday news is personal protective equipment (PPE), the critical gear specially designed to protect people from viruses, infections, injury, and related illnesses. The Food and Drug Administration classifies PPE as “protective clothing, helmets, gloves, face shields, goggles, facemasks/respirators or other equipment.” Of these types of equipment, front and center in daily news feeds and subject of contentious debate are N95 face masks. The FDA strictly regulates protection standards for these masks and related equipment including medical gloves and respirators to ensure the safety of wearers and any persons nearby.

PPE at a glance

In traditional medical settings, personal protective equipment is part of everyday use; in the midst of the COVID crisis, it is critical not only to the safety and health of workers but also preventing the spread of the illness. The key role PPE plays is forming a barrier blocking bacteria and airborne particles from reaching your skin and typical entry points into the body (mouth, nose, eyes). Essential to the successful operation of PPE is selecting and using the right type in relation to the issue at hand.

Types of medical PPE

Respiratory protection

  • Hazardous environments or scenarios of special concern, such as the current coronavirus threat, may require a more robust respiratory defense. Specific training on use and fitting is imperative.

Eye and face protection

  • Eye protection guards against chemical sprays, airborne debris, and other dangers. The most common types of eye and face protection include safety glasses and face shields. The most effective safety glasses wrap around the temple and fit snugly, while face shields offer protection of the entire face.

Hand protection

  • Protective gloves are especially critical in this stressful time and arguably the most important tool to reduce the risk of spreading viruses. Gloves of course also prevent against chemical spills and other dangers. As their material degrades over time, it is essential to replace these gloves often to ensure full protection. The thin latex can easily tear and they must also be removed at key times in a procedure, followed by diligent hand washing.

Body protection

  • Lab coats and specially designed full body suits are imperative in protecting the wearer from blood spills and accompanying infectious agents. Constructed primarily from polyester, full body protection also guards against unexpected splashes of chemicals of various kinds.

In all cases, medical PPE should be readily available and all personnel thoroughly trained on its proper use to mitigate the risk of exposure to dangerous situations. Inappropriate use, however, can have the opposite result and actually increase the risk of infectious illness.

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