The flu may be prominent for months an end, but there are many steps to avoid the virus.
The first prevention method is the flu shot, designed with that flu season in mind. Other methods include washing your hands often and avoiding close contact with those infected. Covering coughs and sneezes also helps control spreading and contracting the flu.
Another tool that many people use is wearing face masks that cover their noses and mouths. More importantly, those infected with the flu can use face masks to help prevent the spread of the virus to those who are healthy.
But, how effective are those face masks?
How do Face Masks Protect Against Viruses?
First off, there are two main types of face masks worn to aid in the prevention of the spread of viruses.
The first is the more common and widespread known mask – the surgical mask. A surgical mask keeps fluids at bay, protecting against the water droplets that often spread the cold or flu. This type of mask loops around your ears and is loose fitting.
The other, tighter fitting option is the N95 respirator.
This mask option reduces the wearer’s exposure to various particles. Those include not just water droplets, but also small particle aerosols. It also requires special training to make sure it is worn correctly. That’s because the mask seals around the mouth and nose properly to block a virus.
Both mask options should be disposed of and replaced after an encounter with an infected person. Patients who are admitted to the hospital will usually receive one of these masks. The patient is then expected to wear the mask until isolated from other people they could infect.
Wearing a Face Mask to Prevent the Flu
Each year about 5-20% of the United States population will contract the flu.
As of mid-February, the CDC has already estimated a whopping 29 million flu cases. The virus has also caused well over 16,000 deaths this season alone.
Flu cases aren’t decreasing, so any method to help limit your chances at infection are worth investigating.
The flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses that infect the nose, throat, and sometimes the lung.
Experts believe that the influenza viruses are spread by tiny droplets. The droplets are made when those infected cough, sneeze, or even talk to others. These droplets then land in the mouths of people nearby or on objects and surfaces that others will then touch.
Dr. Raina MacIntyre is head of biosecurity research at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Dr. MacIntyre explained that if worn properly, surgical masks could protect people in the community from respiratory illnesses.
For many years scientists didn’t believe in the effectiveness of wearing masks to prevent flu infection. But, there have been various studies on the issue. Results showed the effectiveness of wearing face masks to prevent the spread of viruses.
For example, a 2013 study found that using surgical masks, “decreased the exhalation of large viral droplet 25-fold.” While less effective against the finer virus droplets that linger in the air, the masks still offered protection against the droplets. Another group of Australian researchers looked into the issue. Their results found wearing a surgical mask can reduce risks of infection by 60-80%.
One study performed at the University of Michigan looked at students living in residence halls. They assigned more than 1,000 students into different groups based on hygiene practices. The results showed that those who wore masks and practiced good hand washing reduced their risks of catching the flu by 75%.
So, even if you are considering adding a mask to your flu prevention methods, it should be just that, an addition.
Should I Wear a Face Mask to Prevent Infection?
While studies have shown the effectiveness of wearing facial masks to prevent the spread of viruses such as the flu, it comes down to making sure people are wearing the appropriate mask and that they’re using them correctly.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a spokesman for the Infectious Disease Society of America, spoke about the masks. He stated that, “surgical masks and respirators offer protection in the health care setting and do offer some protection to the general public.”
Some issues with the masks come with misuse. Even while wearing a mask, people tend to not dispose of surgical masks frequently enough. They may also constantly move their mask, causing openings for droplets.
Due to the misuse of masks, the CDC remains unclear about the use of face masks outside of healthcare settings.
Healthcare professionals may understand which masks to use and how to wear them, but much of the public lacks that information. The CDC stands by their stance that, “no recommendation can be made at this time for mask use in the community by asymptomatic persons, including those at high risk for complications, to prevent exposure to influenza viruses.”
All in all, when you’re looking at ways to help prevent getting the flu or a cold, it is all about the steps you take to prevent getting infected.
Getting your annual flu shot protects against specific strains of the virus. Covering your mouth when sneezing or coughing can keep the virus from spreading. Washing your hands and other hygienic practices are other common and effective ways of preventing the flu.
Using the appropriate facial mask can offer a protective barrier against the virus droplets. Not only could a mask prevent your own infection, but protect the people around you.
Wearing face masks seems promising and since there are no known risks to wearing a face mask it doesn’t hurt to add this to your routine, especially if you know you’ll be around someone who is actually sick with the flu.
Are you looking for ways to stay free of the flu or other viruses this season? Passport Health can help. Give us a call at for more information about the flu shot, or book an appointment online for more information.
Written for Passport Health by Brianna Malotke. Brianna is a freelance writer and costume designer located in Illinois. She’s an avid coffee drinker and enjoys researching new topics for writing.