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Can a Mask Help Protect You from Flu?

Wearing a face mask may help protect you from flu. What helps even more is for infected people to wear a mask if they can't stay at home.
Can a Mask Help Protect You from Flu?
Woman wearing face mask protect filter against air pollution (PM2.5) or wear N95 mask. protect pollution, anti smog and viruses, Air pollution caused health problem. environmental pollution concept.

During flu season, people want to know how they can keep from catching it. Public health experts are happy to give advice. Most of the time, however, it boils down to just two items: get a flu shot and wash your hands. There is also advice that can help protect you from flu if other people follow it. Stay home if you are sick, and cover your nose or mouth when you sneeze or cough. Perhaps the most important advice is the hardest to follow, and that is don’t touch your face, including your eyes, unless you have just scrubbed your hands thoroughly. Flu viruses like to hang out on gasoline pump handles, elevator buttons and doorknobs, and letting them into your eyes, nose or mouth is asking for trouble. Does it help to wear a face mask in flu season?

Could a Face Mask Protect You from Flu?

Q. I take immune-suppressing drugs for multiple sclerosis. During flu season, I wear a face mask to protect myself from viruses.

I also wear one whenever I travel. I felt a little awkward the first time I wore a mask on an airplane, but I soon realized that it was my “superpower.” People seem to avoid me, which is just fine. I also bring hand sanitizer to wipe down the tray table, arm rests and anything else that I will end up touching.

A. We applaud your prudence. Millions of people are now taking immune-suppressing drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, colitis and other serious auto-immune conditions. This may leave them more vulnerable to infection.

A level three surgical mask is as effective as a disposable respirator (N95) against viral transmission (JAMA, Sept. 3, 2019). In addition to hitching a ride on your hands, flu viruses spread in airborne particles. The masks may cut down on the number that reach your airwaves. Moreover, when you are wearing a mask, you are less likely to touch your mouth or nose unconsciously. Wearing a mask on a plane is a sensible precaution for you.

The greatest value of a face mask, though, is for the person who has a cold or the flu. The mask will catch those particles when she coughs or sneezes and trap them before they can circulate. So a face mask can really protect you from flu most effectively when the infected person wears it.

Hand-Washing During Flu Season:

Your idea of using hand sanitizer on the airplane is brilliant. Airplane tray tables are frequently contaminated. Since you don’t have ready access to soap and water at your seat, using an alcohol-based hand rub is a great solution.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Radonovich LJ et al, "N95 respirators vs medical masks for preventing influenza among health care personnel: A randomized clinical trial." JAMA, Sept. 3, 2019. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.11645
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