Of all the flu-prevention techniques out there, surgical masks are by far the sexiest. You look like a medical professional (sexy); it shrouds you in mystery (sexier); and it keeps you from spraying your spit on everyone you talk to (sexiest). But is it the most effective? That is, will it prevent you from getting the flu and spreading it to vulnerable populations like babies, people with immune disorders and the elderly (after all, who wants to be complicit in grandpa’s death this holiday season)? Let’s see…
Um, who’s really that scared of the flu, anyway?
Old people, for starters. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that around 79,400 people died of influenza between November 2017 and February 2018, 90 percent of whom were over the age of 65. Other people at risk for flu-related complications include pregnant women, people with HIV/AIDS and those who have cancer, heart disease or diabetes.
Okay, I’ll just get a flu shot then.
The thing is, a flu shot doesn’t guarantee that you won’t catch the flu. According to the CDC, the “flu vaccine has been shown to reduce the risk of having to go to the doctor with flu by 40 percent to 60 percent.”
Those aren’t great odds. Now I’m definitely worried about killing grandpa. Will a surgical mask help keep that from happening?
Like with the flu shot, it’s not 100 percent effective, but it definitely won’t do any harm either. The flu is spread through droplets in the air, dispersed when a sick person coughs, sneezes, talks or breathes. These droplets can travel around six feet, allowing them to potentially be inhaled or land in your nose or mouth. Thus, a surgical mask provides a physical barrier from these droplets. It also prevents you from touching your mouth or nose, another means of disease transmission.
Similarly, if you’re the sick one, wearing a mask could help decrease the number of nasty droplets you’re releasing into the air. A 2013 study found that masks reduced the “viral aerosol spreading” of “coarse” (read: big) particles twenty-five-fold. However, masks only reduced “fine” (read: small) particles 2.8-fold. That is, masks can’t completely prevent tiny germs from escaping into the air, but they at least help some.
So that’s a yes?
It depends. If you’re sick and in a confined space, like, say, the doctor’s office waiting area, definitely. Otherwise, if you’re healthy, there’s probably no point. “Wearing a mask all the time in public places to prevent transmission of the flu isn’t recommended for the vast majority of the population,” Sherif Mossad, an infectious disease specialist told Health.com.
Along those lines, per the CDC, there’s no evidence that masks are beneficial to those who aren’t sick. Not surprisingly then, wearing a mask isn’t among the many tips the CDC recommends to prevent the spread of the flu. Instead, they cite the importance of frequent handwashing, avoiding contact with others and sneezing/coughing into tissues that are immediately thrown away. That said, the CDC does recommend that those who display flu symptoms in medical settings wear masks.
What about wearing a mask for other reasons — like to avoid pollution or wildfire smoke?
Eh. That gets to be pretty tricky, too. In one study published in BMJ, the majority of masks worn by residents in Beijing didn’t adequately block pollution particles from entering the lungs (The reason? Most masks don’t properly fit everyone’s face.) The California Department of Public Health has come to the same conclusion. If anything, you’re better off acquiring a solid in-home air cleaner.
Now, as for whether wearing a surgical mask will actually increase your sex appeal, that’s on you. But preventing the spread of easily communicable illnesses among vulnerable populations by getting a flu shot? That’s guaranteed to be hot.