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Influenza, or the flu, transmits from person to person mainly through respiratory droplets. Using face masks may help prevent the transmission of infectious respiratory conditions such as the flu.
It is important to note that although wearing face coverings may reduce the risk of contracting airborne illnesses such as the flu to some degree, there are no guarantees that they will prevent a person from getting sick.
Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not recommend that people use face masks to control seasonal influenza transmission. Getting annual vaccinations is the primary method of preventing influenza in people at high risk.
Some people may want to use masks to help reduce their risk or the risk for those around them, especially while sick. This is especially important for people who are sick and also have compromised immune systems.
People caring for those with compromised immune systems should also wear face masks as often as possible.
Simple face coverings and disposable surgical masks will be the best options, as they have similar rates of protection from the flu and do not take away from medical professionals and other workers who rely on N95 masks.
This article lists some of the best face masks available for flu protection.
Dynarex is one company making disposable surgical masks, mainly for the medical and dental industries.
These are disposable masks that provide a person with a few hours of filtration from outside moisture particles, such as from when a person nearby coughs or sneezes.
The masks comprise different layers, including layers of woven polypropylene. These layers help temporarily filter non-oily and other particles.
The masks have a folded design that completely covers the nose and mouth. The elastic bands tend to be more comfortable than those of some other options.
Compared with other options, however, these masks can be hot. They are also not very durable, but because they are intended for only a few hours of use, this should not be a significant issue.
These masks are at the top of the list because they may be just as effective as N95 masks but without creating shortages in the medical community.
A study in the journal JAMA found no significant difference between using a medical mask such as this and using a surgical respirator when it comes to preventing influenza. The study focused on over 2,800 healthcare workers.
Surgical masks may actually be most important for people who already have symptoms, in order to reduce community spread. A recent study in the journal Nature Medicine found that even poorly fitting surgical masks can significantly reduce the levels of infectious particles that a person with an airborne illness exhales.
These masks are available for purchase online. Stocks are limited at this time, however, so these specific masks may be unavailable.
A number of companies make cloth masks for everyday use. Thick, heavy layers of cloth, such as cotton or flannel, can make a decent everyday filter when a person does not have immediate access to a surgical mask.
These masks may reduce the airborne particles that a person releases when they speak, which may reduce community transmission from direct contact with viral particles.
Any cloth mask should be made from heavier cloth materials and should cover both the nose and the mouth. The mask should fit snugly around the face and be secured using straps or ties.
Avoid touching the mouth, nose, or eyes when removing or putting on the mask. Always pair mask use with other hygiene techniques, such as regularly washing the hands.
These masks, which are a type of N95 mask, are the accepted standard for protective face masks.
N95 masks have National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) approval, as they block tiny particles and pollutants in the air from getting into the airways. This includes dust and other occupational hazards. They also block out some mold spores and infectious germs.
These N95 respirators are breathable compared with other options, while still providing a good seal due to the adjustable nose clip.
This version of the mask also features a flow valve to help with moisture buildup while filtering. However, this also means that a little unfiltered air gets both in and out of the mask.
There are also not many sizes to choose from. People with very large or very small faces may not find the masks comfortable for everyday use.
The straps are highly elastic, but not very adjustable, which may cause discomfort or irritation for some people.
These masks are a more simple form of N95 mask that are still NIOSH-approved. The masks are made from a microfiber filter, which helps block out particles form the environment.
These masks have a nose clip for some level of adjustability and to help create a tight seal.
That said, the masks do tend to feel hotter and more humid, as they lack any valve system to allow air out. Some people may also find the masks uncomfortable, as the elastic straps are not adjustable and may be tight.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, these masks are in short supply and should be reserved for people who need them most.
These masks are the true standard for medical filtration, as they can effectively filter certain viruses and bacteria.
They can hold their shape and create a good seal around the mouth and nose.
However, they have a relatively short shelf life and only last about 3 years on the shelf before becoming less effective. They also do not have an exhalation vent, making them a little hotter than some other options.
Although wearing a face mask is an important preventive measure against airborne viruses such as the flu, there is no guarantee that they will prevent transmission completely.
As the CDC note, adults with influenza can be contagious 1 day before and up to 7 days after they show symptoms of the illness. Because of this, the spread of influenza may occur when people are unaware that they have the infection.
However, taking steps to reduce the chances of transmission may help prevent the spread of infection.
Wearing a face mask is not the only measure a person can take, however. The first line of defense for people at risk is getting an annual flu vaccination.
Influenza can also spread indirectly when a person comes into contact with an infected surface. Regularly washing the hands and sanitizing shared surfaces are also important steps to take to reduce the spread of the flu, especially during flu season.
Taking steps to protect against the flu is important, especially for people who may be more at risk of serious complications from these infections.
Wearing face masks is not a guaranteed way to prevent flu infection, as people can be infectious without knowing it.
That said, taking precautions such as wearing a face mask while sick can help reduce community spread.
People with a higher risk of complications from influenza may want to consider other preventive measures, such as getting an annual vaccine.