Flu 2018 panic is in full swing, and with very good reason. Already termed “moderately severe” by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), indications are that this flu season will only get worse, and the flu has claimed the lives of at least 30 children (and many adults) so far. Meanwhile, a new study from the University of Maryland suggests that the flu virus may not require a sneeze or cough to become airborne; it may spread simply through breathing.
You already know to get the flu shot (and it’s still worth getting), wash your hands copiously, and keep a low profile if you’re sick so your flu is not contagious to others. 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.
But is masking your face a smart strategy, or merely an overreaction to flu fear?
“Yes, a surgical mask can help prevent the flu,” Dr. Sherif Mossad, 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 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,” Dr. Susan Besser, 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 Besser. “If a mask gets wet—and it will by simply breathing into it—the effectiveness of its protective effect is reduced.”
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 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 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.
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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