Flu season: To mask or not to mask? That is the question


Flu is upon us and everyone — neighbors, friends, loved ones and that co-worker coughing up a lung in the next cubicle – seems infected.

What’s a healthy person to do? Put on one of those germ-proof head-to-toe suits like in the movie Outbreak? Well, if you recall, it didn’t save Kevin Spacey.

So in the midst of the worst flu season since the 2009 Swine flu scare, the question for some: To mask or not to mask?

For the germ-conscious, the surgical mask seems to be a solution. Sorry, Charlie. It may keep a person from spreading the flu when coughing, but whether a surgical mask is going to keep you healthy is up to debate.

But … “it may help,” says Dr. Peter Lamelas, chief of staff for MD Now, which has 33 urgent care clinics in South Florida. His staff has been handing them out to patients in the waiting rooms.

The emphasis here is the word “may.”

For the pro-mask side, a 2008 study found that when used correctly those living with a sick family member were 80 percent less likely to be diagnosed with the illness, according to Medical Daily.

But the medical website adds this caveat from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “It’s when people wear these masks in other locations that protection starts to waver.” A CDC report on the subject says that “very little information is available about the effectiveness of face masks and respirators in controlling the spread of pandemic influenza in community settings.”

The CDC has a whole web page dedicated to whether or not to wear a surgical mask amid the flu.

It supports a mask for anybody who has the flu — and especially respiratory distress — to keep from spreading it.

The flu is spread through virus-laden droplets generated by speaking or more likely, by coughing or sneezing. Adults can spread the virus one day before symptoms appear and five to seven days after the onset of illness, according to the CDC.

Masks do make sense for certain groups: the ill and health care workers, experts told NPR during the real last flu scare in 2009.

Will a surgical mask prevent illness? Not exactly. If you don’t have symptoms, the CDC doesn’t recommend it. 

However, NPR said in its 2009 report that masks do seem to have one effect: People tend to stay away from those wearing them. The CDC, though, said at the time: “It is difficult to assess their potential effectiveness.”

It also makes the wearer more self-conscious about touching his or her face, some experts say.

At the time, there isn’t a great run of surgical masks at Palm Beach County medical supply stores. Joey Bouchlas, who works at Atlantic Healthcare Products & Medical Supply in West Palm Beach, says there’s been an uptick of people buying masks only to prevent the flu but not more than any typical flu season.

So what’s better for keeping healthy during flu season?

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

The best defense against the flu remains vaccination, the CDC says. Yes, it’s not a panacea and people can still get sick, but usually, the illness is not as severe. And it’s still not too late to get a flu shot. The flu season lasts at least through March.



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