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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

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soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. Indira

    we hear that there is a plan to public school children vaccinated at the school, my question is what about the 6,049,000
    11% of the kids who go to the private schools and 1.5 millian are home schooled.

    would like to have more information on the vaccination it self and the govt plan on how it will be distributed.


    August 27, 2009 at 23:48 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Troy Billington

    True, wearing the cheaper N95 masks can be hard, there are vented N95 masks which are much easier to wear. You should know however, they're only intended for a couple hours use, not all day long as ANY mask will become less effective at filtering with prolonged use.

    I want to also point out the extreme importance of washing your hands frequently with plain soap and water, use the alcohol-based sanitizers ONLY when you have no access to soap and water. Manufacturers openly state their product is not intended to kill viruses.

    For more information and to get vented N95 masks visit http://www.Survivaltime.org

    August 28, 2009 at 03:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Marsha Edwards

    I am concerned, I have asthma and wonder if a smaller supply will be available sooner than middle of October for the folks at the most risk.
    The elderly, very young and folks with respiratory distress.


    August 28, 2009 at 09:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Bessie

    how can we keep ourselves from getting the H1n1 flu...???

    August 31, 2009 at 20:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. lee sybrant

    If you have had swine flu, can you get it again??

    September 1, 2009 at 14:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Jackie in Dallas

    Dr. Gupta, please reiterate that surgical FACE MASKS ARE INEFFECTIVE as a deterent for catching H1N1! Most face masks are for preventing much larger particles from entering our nose or mouth, but are not effective against many viruses.

    As you said, they may help you from spreading the virus (by cutting down the airborn contaminants from sneezing and coughing) if you already have it, but will NOT prevent you from getting it.

    September 3, 2009 at 12:33 | Report abuse | Reply


    December 14, 2009 at 16:17 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.