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 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 influenza wear masks. The CDC doesn't recommend that people in public areas wear masks to protect themselves from influenza.

If you have influenza and need to leave your home, such as to go to a doctor's appointment, you can wear a mask, which may help reduce the spread of infection. The CDC also recommends avoiding contact with anyone if you're ill with influenza.

Generally, taking precautions such as washing your hands regularly and avoiding people who are sick is considered the best mode of protection against influenza.

People who live in community housing — such as college dorms, nursing homes or military barracks — are at higher risk of influenza 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 transmission of germs from the hands to the mouth. However, in most cases, the best way to protect yourself from influenza is to follow preventive measures such as washing your hands often and getting your annual influenza vaccination.

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Pritish K. Tosh, M.D.

Feb. 14, 2020