Does Wearing a Surgical Mask Prevent the Flu?
Can a mask really keep you safe this flu season? We took it to the experts.
Flu season is officially in full swing—and even if you've gotten your flu shot, you're never 100% guaranteed to get through the season virus-free. Already "widespread" in Puerto Rico and 48 states, the flu has claimed the lives of at least 54 children (and many adults) so far. Especially troubling is the fact that the flu virus doesn’t require a sneeze or cough to become airborne; it can spread simply through breathing. And to make things even worse, new fears surrounding the novel coronavirus' expansion to the US, have people even more on guard when it comes to illness.
In addition to getting the flu shot, you already know that washing your hands copiously, and keeping a low profile while you’re sick is paramount to keeping yourself and others healthy, but now, concerned folks are taking prevention a step further, donning surgical masks—both to avoid getting the flu and to prevent the spread of the flu they already have. Mask-wearers are even proudly posting pictures under #flumask on Instagram.
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Is wearing a surgical mask a smart strategy, or merely an overreaction to flu fear?
“Yes, a surgical mask can help prevent the flu,” Sherif Mossad, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. “Flu is carried in air droplets, so a mask would mechanically prevent the flu virus from reaching other people.” It would work both ways, says Dr. Mossad, preventing transmission of the flu virus to others and for keeping a mask-wearer from picking up an infection.
Surgical masks to prevent the flu can be found in major drugstores and online, and yours doesn't need to be fancy to help. “A simple disposable mask is fine, just be sure the packaging notes that it protects against airborne particles,” Susan Besser, MD, a family medicine doctor with Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore, Maryland tells Health. And splurge for a value-sized pack. “Disposable is best and you should discard your mask after each use,” says Dr. Besser. “If a mask gets wet—and it will by simply breathing into it—the effectiveness of its protective effect is reduced.”
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Remember that a mask is not 100% effective and should complement, not replace, other strategies. If you have the flu, the number one thing you can do to avoid spreading it to others is to stay home, notes Dr. Besser. And to avoid picking up the bug yourself, “hand washing is always number one,” she says. Getting your flu shot and covering your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze (with the crook of your arm, not your hand) are still imperative.
While a surgical mask is a solid flu-fighting strategy in general, if you’re perfectly healthy and simply looking for (increasingly elusive) peace of mind, experts are not completely sold on the necessity of adding a mask to your flu-avoidance routine.
“I think wearing a mask all the time in public places to prevent transmission of the flu is not recommended for the vast majority of the population,” says Dr. Mossad. Patients with weakened immune systems (due to disease, medications, or transplants), on the other hand, should have a mask handy in case they find themselves in a confined space with another person who is coughing.
Dr. Besser concurs: “My personal opinion is masks for healthy individuals are more annoying than useful. If you are really using a mask for protection or prevention, you would have to wear it practically 24/7 to avoid any possible contact. But if you are actively ill, please do wear a mask. Help keep others healthy and avoid the spread of the flu.”
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