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Do Surgical Masks Really Protect Against the Flu?

Woman in a crowd wearing a surgical mask.
Maridav/Shutterstock

When there’s a particularly nasty outbreak of the flu or similar illness, people will naturally go to great lengths to avoid catching it. But are surgical masks actually necessary for the average person to protect themselves against airborne pathogens?

People with compromised immune systems and other related health concerns should defer to their doctor’s recommendation (and should likely be taking every precaution available to them to avoid what could be a life-threatening illness), but what about regular folks just walking around grocery shopping, commuting to work, and going about their daily lives? Is wearing a surgical mask really an effective or necessary precaution for them? Let’s take a closer look.

Hand sanitizers and handwashing can help lower the chances of getting infected, but when it comes to the public perception of disease prevention the surgical mask has a reputation as a powerful preventative measure—after all, it would seem to clean the very air you breathe in right? The current fear of a coronavirus pandemic, for instance, has caused face masks shortages in China and Hong Kong and prices to skyrocket. Yet the bug keeps spreading.

Viruses that cause respiratory illnesses spread mainly via droplets generated when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes. These droplets can be inhaled, ingested, or picked up by touching a surface they landed on and transferring them to the eyes, nose, or mouth. This is why surgical masks are believed to be a great way to protect yourself from such a virus. In practice, however, that’s not actually the case.

Surgical masks are meant to protect patients from the doctor’s germs, and not the other way around. The mask is there primarily so they aren’t breathing, coughing, or sneezing their bodily fluids onto you. Even then, there are studies raising questions about how effective they are at that task given their identification as a source of bacterial contamination in the operating room. Part of their shortcomings stems from the fact that surgical masks don’t provide a snug fit and they don’t filter out smaller particles. Their filtration level of the material is also not regulated which allows anyone to sell anything resembling a surgical mask and label it as such.

Surgical masks are primarily effective at keeping your germs off other people, not necessarily keeping their germs off you.

Respirators have been suggested to be a better option given they’re tight-fitting and they provide two-way protection by filtering both the air entering and leaving the mask. Studies on the matter do suggest they they offer increased protection, but these studies were conducted on medical personnel already following a rigorous containment and hygiene schedule to avoid infections.

The biggest issue with many of these viruses is that people can become infectious days before they begin to show symptoms which renders the use of surgical masks as a prevention method essentially moot. For instance, people can shed the influenza virus one day before symptoms appear and up to seven days after its onset. And while this might encourage some to wear it at all times “just in case”, it should be noted they’re rather uncomfortable and quite impractical to wear 24/7.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does, as you would imagine, recommend the use of surgical masks and other protective measures for healthcare personnel and people working directly with infected people, it doesn’t recommend the use of masks by asymptomatic people as a prevention tool against exposure to the influenza virus, including those who present a high risk for complications. Further, if you are not in a group they recommend use masks as a form of protection, buying up supplies of those masks and risking a shortage of masks among the healthcare personnel and at-risk patients who need them could accelerate the spread of an outbreak in the general population.

The most realistic way to prevent the spread of such a virus isn’t glamorous but it is effective. You can best protect yourself by practicing a simple three-step method every time you sneeze or cough:

  1. Catch the germs with a tissue every time you cough or sneeze;
  2. Dispose of the tissue after use making sure it doesn’t come into contact with anyone else;
  3. Wash your hands thoroughly and properly with soap to remove the germs.

The one thing a mask can help with is in minimizing the chances of self-contamination. Since a virus similar to the flu can survive for up to 24 hours on a surface, having a mask on can stop you from touching your mouth or nose with the same hand that came into contact with the infected surface. However, the eyes are still exposed so having a mask remains an imperfect solution

So, when it comes to the flu or similar viruses a surgical mask is not a fool-proof prevention method. Washing your hands with soap regularly, carefully disposing of used tissues, and using hand sanitizer are the best ways to prevent infection and transmission for the average person. As always, however, if you are in a unique situation consult with your doctor for the best course of action.

Carla Cometto Carla Cometto
Carla has been writing professionally for five years and blogging for many more. She's worked as a journalist, photographer, and translator. She's also an avid traveler who hopes to inspire a sense of curiosity and adventure in others through her writing. Read Full Bio »

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