August 27th, 2009
01:32 PM ET

Do masks protect you from H1N1?

By Miriam Falco
CNN Medical Managing Editor

When H1N1, better known as swine flu, first appeared in April, I saw a lot of video of people wearing face masks. Video from Mexico showed people wearing surgical masks in their effort to protect themselves from this new type of flu. But I also remember when we covered SARS and the H5N1 bird flu, we made a point that those often loose-fitting surgical masks don't protect you from getting sick. (I'm talking about in a non-hospital setting) That's because people usually aren't wearing them properly.

I remember one particular bit of video showing a man crossing the street with the mask covering only his mouth, not his nose. The firmer, more industrial strength N-95 masks are much more effective. But they are hard to wear for a long time because they can make breathing difficult. So I was surprised to see the latest CDC guidelines do recommend face masks in certain settings.

I asked a few experts about this, including the CDC's main point person for the H1N1, Dr. Anne Schuchat, who is the director of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. She told me that in certain settings, particularly if it's difficult to separate sick people from those who are healthy, wearing a mask can help reduce the amount of virus being spread by blocking some of the virus-carrying droplets that can float through the air. As I look at the guidelines on the CDC Web site, I see some other plausible situations, where face masks are recommended. For instance, when you're sharing common spaces with another family member or when you're breastfeeding.

I also asked Dr. Manoj Jain, an infectious disease expert and adjunct professor at Emory University. I thought he had a pretty good explanation: "The masks are helpful because it makes us more conscious of where our hands are going and we are less likely to put our hands on our nose and mouth. Because that's how the virus gets into your system and can make you sick." He also says wearing a mask can make you more conscious about washing your hands and could ultimately lead to behavior change.

A small study this month in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that if people who had seasonal flu and their families wore surgical face masks and washed their hands in the first 36 hours of symptoms, healthy family members got less seasonal flu. Researchers think the principle would hold true for H1N1 too.

Of course, you don't have to wear a mask. Health officials remind us daily that there are simple ways to protect yourself from the flu and reduce spreading it if you have it already. Cough into a tissue or into your sleeve, not your hands. Wash your hands frequently – even if you cough into your sleeve - because the virus may have lurked on a surface you touched. Get a flu shot – both for the regular flu and for H1N1 when it becomes available. And if you do get sick, stay home, so you don't make other people sick. Other tips can be found at www.flu.gov.

Will you wear a mask? Are you taking special precautions to protect yourself from H1N1? Are you concerned?

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