When the United States experienced an outbreak of the swine flu in 2009, everyone was talking about how to reduce the spread of the virus.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)Trusted Source, vaccine availability was limited that year because the virus wasn’t identified until manufacturers had already started producing the annual vaccine.
So, people started doing something most of us hadn’t really seen before to stop transmission: wearing surgical face masks.
But with the recent spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, people are again looking to surgical face masks as a way of protecting themselves and others from the virus, which causes the disease COVID-19.
But does wearing a face mask really prevent the spread of viruses, such as the flu or SARS-CoV-2?
We’ll look at recommendations from experts, unpack the research on which masks are most effective, and explain how to use masks properly.
What do the experts say?
In the case of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19, the CDCTrusted Source notes that:
“CDC does not recommend that people who are well wearing a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19. You should only wear a mask if a healthcare professional recommends it. A facemask should be used by people who have COVID-19 and are showing symptoms.”
The CDCTrusted Source recommends healthcare workers wear face masks when working with patients who have the flu.
The CDC also recommends trusted Source patients who show signs of respiratory infections be given masks while they’re in healthcare settings until they can be isolated.
If you’re sick and need to be around others, properly wearing a mask can protect those around you from contracting your illness.
Studies show masks may help in some cases
For many years, scientists weren’t sure whether wearing a mask was effective at preventing the spread of viruses. However, recent studies suggest they can help.
One 2013 study trusted Source looked at how masks could help people with the seasonal flu limit spreading it when they exhale small droplets containing the virus. Overall, researchers found masks led to a more than threefold reduction in how much virus people sprayed into the air.
Another study trusted Source, analyzing data from thousands of Japanese schoolchildren, found that “vaccination and wearing a mask reduced the likelihood of developing seasonal influenza.”
Importantly, researchers also found trusted Source that flu rates were lower when masks were paired with proper hand hygiene.
In other words, regular handwashing remains an essential tool in preventing the spread of viruses.
Different types of masks
If you’re considering wearing a mask to protect yourself against infections, there are two types you should know about.
Surgical face masks
Surgical face masks are fairly loose-fitting, disposable masks approved by the 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 or other germs from escaping via the nose and mouth. They also protect against splashes and sprays from other people, such as those from sneezes and coughs.
But the average masks you can buy from a local drugstore aren’t enough to filter out viruses.
For that purpose, experts recommend special masks with a fine mesh that can capture very small organisms. These also have to be worn correctly for them to work.
Masks worn over the face are also unable to protect you from getting airborne virus particles, from a cough or sneeze, into your eyes.
Buy surgical face masks from Amazon or Walmart.
Respirators, also called N95 respirator masks, are designed to protect the wearer from small particles in the air, like viruses. They’re certified by the CDC and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The name comes from the fact that they can filter 95 percent trusted Source of airborne particles, according to the CDC. N95 masks are also often used when painting or handling potentially toxic materials.
Respirators are selected to fit your face. They must form a perfect seal so no gaps allow airborne viruses in. Healthcare workers use them to protect against airborne infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and anthrax.
Unlike regular face masks, respirators protect against both large and small particles.
Overall, respirators are considered much more effective at preventing the flu virus than regular face masks.
Still, studies have found benefits to both types of masks.
Buy N95 respirator masks from Amazon or Walmart.
Guidelines for wearing face masks
While face masks can help reduce the spread of the flu and other respiratory viruses, they only do so if worn correctly and frequently.
Here are some guidelines for proper mask-wearing:
- Wear a face mask when coming within 6 feet of a sick person.
- Position 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.
- Wear a face mask before going near other people if you have the flu.
- If you have the flu and need to see a doctor, wear a face mask to protect others in the waiting area.
- Consider wearing a mask in crowded settings if the flu is widespread in your community, or if you’re at high risk for flu complications.
- When you’re done wearing the mask, throw it away and wash your hands. Never reuse a face mask.
Bottom line: To wear, or not to wear
When it comes to the flu, prevention is still the best method of keeping yourself safe from this highly contagious virus.
A face mask may offer added protection against getting sick. However, the CDCTrusted Source recommends you only use masks if you’re told to by a professional or are showing symptoms for respiratory illnesses, including COVID-19, in order to protect others around you from the infection.
There are no known risks to wearing these devices, except for the cost of buying them.
While masks seem promising, it’s also important to utilize other preventive measures, too.
Make sure you wash your hands often — 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.