Should I wear a mask to protect myself from influenza?
Answer From Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.
In some cases, wearing a mask might help protect you from the human influenza A and B viruses — the ones responsible for most seasonal outbreaks of the flu (influenza). But the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) generally suggests that only health care workers who are in close contact with people with the flu wear masks.
The CDC doesn't recommend that people in public areas wear masks to protect themselves from the flu. However, if you're not fully vaccinated for COVID-19, you may need to take additional precautions such as wearing a cloth face mask in public places to reduce your risk of catching or spreading the COVID-19 virus.
If you have the flu and need to leave your home, such as to go to a doctor's appointment, you can wear a mask. This may help reduce the spread of infection. The CDC also recommends avoiding contact with anyone if you're ill with the flu.
Generally, the best way to prevent the flu is by taking precautions such as getting vaccinated, washing your hands regularly and avoiding people who are sick.
People who live in community housing — such as college dorms, nursing homes or military barracks — are at higher risk of the flu because they're in contact with more potentially infected people.
Influenza A and B viruses travel through the air in droplets when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes or talks. You can inhale the droplets directly. Or you can pick up the germs from an object — such as a telephone or computer keyboard — and then transfer them to your eyes, nose or mouth.
For health care workers caring for people with influenza, surgical-type masks may help block respiratory droplets carrying influenza germs and prevent the spread of germs from the hands to the mouth. However, in most cases, the best way to protect against the flu is to follow preventive measures such as washing hands often and getting an annual flu vaccination.
Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.
Dec. 15, 2021
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See more Expert Answers
- Key facts about influenza (flu). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/keyfacts.htm. Accessed June 10, 2021.
- How flu spreads. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/spread.htm. Accessed June 10, 2021.
- Preventive steps. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/prevent/prevention.htm. Accessed June 10, 2021.
- Interim guidance for the use of masks to control seasonal influenza virus transmission. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/professionals/infectioncontrol/maskguidance.htm. Accessed June 10, 2021.
- Eke UA, et al. Personal protective equipment in the siege of respiratory viral pandemics: Strides made and next steps. Expert Review of Respiratory Medicine. 2020; doi:10.1080/17476348.2021.1865812.
- Xiao J, et al. Nonpharmaceutical measures for pandemic influenza in nonhealthcare settings — Personal protective and environmental measures. Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2020; doi:10.3201/eid2605.190994.
- Jameson JL, et al., eds. Influenza. In: Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. 20th ed. McGraw Hill; 2018. https://accessmedicine.mhmedical.com. Accessed June 11, 2021.
- Guidance for wearing masks. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html. Accessed June 14, 2021.
- Choosing safer activities. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/participate-in-activities.html. Accessed June 14, 2021.