Many people are worried about the flu (influenza) and are wondering – will using face masks / surgical masks protect them against the flu? Let’s find out!
The Flu : Influenza Virus
People are panicking about the perceived surge in influenza cases, probably spooked by reports of a new SARS-like virus outbreak in China.
First of all, let’s get this straight. The outbreak in China is caused by a new coronavirus, which is different from the influenza virus that causes yearly outbreaks all over the world.
And while the Chinese coronavirus outbreak is of great concern, it has affected only a small number of people. The flu, on the other hand, causes 3-5 million serious infections, with 290,000 to 650,000 deaths… every single year.
Influenza virus is very infectious, and spreads through the air from coughs and sneezes. You can also get infected if you touch your eyes, nose or mouth after touching any surface contaminated by the virus.
People who do not have access to vaccines, or are just against them, often opt to use face masks or surgical / medical masks. But how effective are these masks?
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Face Masks vs Surgical Masks vs N95 Respirators
First, let’s differentiate face masks from surgical or medical masks. There are many face masks that are worn for fashion. They are usually reusable, being made from washable cotton, and often lack a filter.
A proper 3-ply surgical or medical mask, on the other hand, has three layers – each with very specific functions :
- an outer hydrophobic layer, which repels water, blood and body fluids,
- a middle filter layer that is designed to filter bacteria, and
- an inner hydrophilic layer, which absorbs water, sweat and spit
There are also 2-ply face masks that are usually made from the same material – fabric or polypropylene or other kinds of non-woven material. There is NO FILTER layer.
Finally, we have N95 respirators that are designed to form a tight seal over your mouth and nose, and will filter 95% of particles with a median diameter of 0.3 microns.
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Can Face Masks Protect Us Against The Flu / Influenza?
In 2009, Dr. William Lindsley from the West Virginia University used a coughing simulator to shoot respiratory particles at a surgical face mask and N95 respirator placed six feet away.
He found that while the N95 respirator blocked almost all respiratory particles, the surgical mask let 20% of the respiratory particles in.
The CDC have recommended since 2009 that healthcare workers use the tighter-fitting N95 respirator, instead of surgical masks, when attending to patients with influenza or similar respiratory viruses.
Even so, it was believed that surgical masks would help prevent infections by preventing users from touching their faces with dirty / infected hands.
However, a new CDC-sponsored study, published in JAMA on 3 September 2019, showed that surgical masks are as effective as N95 respirators in preventing influenza infections amongst healthcare workers.
This was the largest study ever done, involving over 2800 healthcare personnel in multiple cities across the United States.
While more studies will be conducted to confirm their findings, the evidence appears to show that we can rely on cheap 3-ply surgical masks to protect against the flu, even though they are still useless against the haze and air pollution.
Just make sure you wear your surgical mask properly, and regularly wash your hands with soap!
Best Protection Against The Flu / Influenza
The best protection against the flu is offered by the influenza vaccine which is formulated twice a year to target a few specific strains that the WHO predicts are most likely to be circulating.
Even though it doesn’t always prevent an infection because the virus rapidly mutates, it can reduce the severity of the infection. So the WHO recommends it for high-risk groups like :
- pregnant women
- children less than 5 years of age
- the elderly
- healthcare workers
- people with chronic diseases
Just make sure you get the latest formulation, and that the cold chain has not been broken – the vaccine must be kept refrigerated at all times between 2°C and 8°C, from the manufacturer to the clinic / hospital.
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Where To Buy Surgical Masks
Before you rush out to buy surgical masks, please make sure they are proper 3-layer surgical masks, and not 2-ply face masks or fashion masks. Here are some online purchase options :
- Malaysia : Lazada | Shopee
- United States
- United Kingdom
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