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 getting the flu, also called influenza. But in general, protecting yourself from flu means taking a range of actions. Above all, getting the flu vaccine can help protect you from catching the flu.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that people who are diagnosed with flu or suspect they have flu consider wearing a facemask around others. This means wearing a facemask around members of your household and when you go for medical care. In medical settings, the CDC recommends that healthcare professionals wear a facemask when helping patients who have or may have the flu.

People who are not ill and choose to wear a mask can get the best protection by wearing a mask every time they are in public and at home when around others.

Other ways you can protect yourself from getting the flu are:

  • Get vaccinated. The CDC recommends annual flu vaccination for everyone age 6 months and older. It lowers your chance of getting the flu, having complications from the flu and dying from the flu.
  • Wash your hands. Wash your hands well and often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren't available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Make sure friends and family that you're around regularly, especially kids, know the importance of hand-washing.
  • Avoid touching your face. Keeping your hands away from your eyes, nose and mouth helps keep germs away from those places.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow. Then wash your hands.
  • Clean surfaces. Regularly clean often-touched surfaces to prevent spread of infection from touching a surface with the virus on it and then your face.
  • Avoid crowds. The flu spreads easily wherever people gather — in child care centers, schools, office buildings, auditoriums and public transportation. By avoiding crowds during peak flu season, you lower your chances of infection.

If you can, avoid people who are sick. And if you're sick, stay home for at least 24 hours after your fever is gone so that you lessen your chance of infecting others.

Influenza is caused by viruses. These 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 computer keyboard, and then transfer the germs to your eyes, nose or mouth.

People with the virus are likely contagious from about a day before symptoms appear until about 5 to 7 days after they start. Children and people with weakened immune systems may be contagious for a slightly longer time.


Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.

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Sept. 21, 2023 See more Expert Answers