When the Unites States experienced an outbreak
of the swine flu in 2009, everyone was talking about how to reduce
the spread of the infection. According to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention (CDC), vaccine availability was limited that
year because the virus wasn’t identified until manufacturers had already
started producing the annual vaccine.
organizations reminded people of the importance of regular handwashing with
warm water and soap. People who developed the flu were advised to stay home to
recover and avoid spreading the virus to others. Then, some people started doing something most of us hadn’t seen before:
wearing surgical masks. Learn more about whether facemasks can really
prevent spread of the flu,
and which masks are the
Studies Show Masks Do Help
years, scientists weren’t sure if wearing a mask was
effective at preventing the spread of viruses. However, recent studies suggest
that they can help.
First, a 2008 study
published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases concluded
that when used correctly, masks are highly effective in preventing the spread
of viral infections. Family members of children with flu-like
illnesses who used the masks properly were 80 percent less likely to be diagnosed with the illness. Surprisingly,
the difference between types of masks used was
Another study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reported similar results. Researchers looked at 400 people
who had the flu. They found that family members reduced their risk
of getting the flu by 70 percent when they washed their hands often and wore surgical masks.
Other studies found promising results outside of the household. For example, one such study
was conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Michigan on more than 1,000 students living in residence halls. They assigned the student to groups: those
who wore masks, those who wore masks and practiced hand hygiene, and those who
did neither. The results showed that those who wore masks in residence halls and practiced good handwashing reduced their risk of flu-like illness by an
astonishing 75 percent.
Still, the study found no reduction in symptoms for
mask use alone. This finding suggests that the use of masks should always be
paired with regular handwashing.
Different Types of Masks
If you are considering wearing a mask to protect against
infections, there are two types you should know about.
Facemasks are fairly
loosely fitting, disposable masks approved by the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration for use as medical devices. Doctors, dentists, and nurses
often wear them while treating patients. These masks prevent large droplets of bodily fluids that
may contain viruses from escaping via the nose and
mouth. Facemasks also protect against
splashes and sprays from others, such as those from sneezes and coughs. The downside
is that these masks don’t prevent the inhalation of small, airborne contaminants.
called N95 respirator masks, are designed to protect the wearer from
small particles in the air that may contain viruses. They are
certified by the CDC and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and
Health. The name comes from the fact that they can filter 95 percent of airborne particles, according
to the CDC. N95 masks are
also often used when painting or handling potentially toxic materials.
are selected to fit your face. They must form a perfect seal so that
no gaps allow airborne viruses in. Healthcare workers use them to protect
against airborne infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and anthrax. Unlike
regular facemasks, respirators protect
against both large and small particles.
are considered much more effective at preventing the flu virus than regular
facemasks. Still, studies have found benefits to both types of masks.
Guidelines for Wearing Facemasks
The CDC revised its
healthcare setting guidelines for flu prevention to include facemasks and
respirators in 2010. They recommend that
healthcare workers wear facemasks when working with
patients who have the flu. They also suggest offering facemasks to patients who show signs of
respiratory infections. Respirators, however, are reserved for healthcare
workers to wear during medical procedures.
Facemasks can help reduce
the spread of the flu — but only if they’re worn correctly and frequently. For example,
several people were excluded from the results
of the International Journal of Infectious Diseases study
because they didn’t wear their masks properly or when they should have.
Here are some
guidelines for proper mask-wearing:
a facemask when coming within six feet of a sick person.
the strings to keep the mask firmly in place over the
nose, mouth, and chin. Try not to touch the mask again until you remove it.
a facemask before going near other people if you have the flu.
you have the flu and need to see the doctor, wear a facemask to protect others
in the waiting area.
wearing a mask in crowded settings if the flu is widespread in your community
or if you are at high risk for flu complications.
you’re done wearing the mask, throw it away and wash your hands. Never
reuse a facemask.
Bottom Line: To Wear, or Not to
it comes to the flu, prevention is still the best method of keeping yourself
safe from this highly contagious virus. A facemask may offer added protection
against getting sick. There are no known risks to wearing these devices, except
for the cost of buying them.
do seem promising, but it’s also important to utilize other preventive
measures, too. Make sure you wash your hands often during flu season — especially
if you’re around others who may be sick. Also, be sure to get your annual flu
shot to protect yourself and others from spreading the virus.