How effective are face masks against the flu? Will wearing a mask stop me from getting the flu? What can I do to avoid getting sick? – ABC News

Flu season has well and truly arrived in Australia and is shaping to be one of the worst in years as case numbers continue to climb.

It can be a nasty illness, and coupled with COVID-19, which is still circulating in the community, it’s already putting a strain on the nation’s hospital and health services.

Some health experts, including Queensland’s deputy chief health officer, have called on people to consider wearing face masks in public again to reduce the spread of influenza and COVID. 

Masks have been an essential tool throughout the pandemic in stopping the spread of the virus – so can they do the same with the flu?

Will wearing a mask stop me from getting the flu?

Not necessarily.

Queensland University of Technology professor of public health and disaster management Gerry FitzGerald said masks can certainly offer some protection in reducing the spread of influenza, but are more effective if you’re already infected.

Generic flu, influenza, cold, sniffle shot.Generic flu, influenza, cold, sniffle shot.
Queenslanders are bracing for what looks likely to be an unprecedented flu season.(ABC News: Kym Agius)

“The masks that are generally available don’t provide a lot of protection to the individual due to their lightweight material,” he said.

“When you breathe out, the majority of viral particles that you breathe out are… larger.

“[When your face is covered], that reduces the likelihood of them [infected people] spreading it to non-infected people.”

The flu is spread easily, mainly through sneezing and coughing.

Professor FitzGerald said masks’ effectiveness also depends on what kind you wear and how you wear it.

More on that soon.

Where should I wear a mask?

woman sits on suitcase in airport wearing maskwoman sits on suitcase in airport wearing mask
Face masks are required at all airports and on public transport.(Pexels/Anna Shvets)

Professor Fitzgerald said people should certainly wear a mask in the following settings:

  • Hospitals
  • Aged care homes
  • Disability facilities 
  • Airports
  • On public transport
  • In “congested” areas

“Influenza is a less serious disease than COVID-19 but it is nevertheless serious… and it does cause a number of deaths every year,” Professor FitzGerald said.

“So in terms of protection from the flu, in high-risk settings, or where social distancing isn’t possible, definitely [you should wear a mask].

“The quick answer is – if you’re in circumstances where it’s difficult to keep a distance from others, it’s worth considering wearing a mask.”

What mask should I wear?

face mask being worn in office genericface mask being worn in office generic
N95 masks provide more protection than surgical masks.(ABC Kimberley: Andrew Seaborne)

A face mask can be a reusable cloth face mask or a single-use surgical mask, which includes a P2 or N95 mask.

For it to be effective, it must cover your nose and mouth and fit snugly under your chin, over the bridge of your nose and against the sides of your face.

Surgical masks can block other people’s respiratory droplets from being released when a person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes, however they have some design flaws and should only be worn once.

N95 masks are standard in infection-control hospital wards and high-risk medical environments.

Professor FitzGerald said N95 masks do provide more protection but are more challenging to wear.

“There are higher-grade masks… N95 is the common one… but the difficultly with those is they are a bit harder to breathe through,” he said.

“And they have to be applied carefully and changed frequently.”

Ultimately, you should wear a mask that fits well and that you can wear properly.

A scarf, bandana, face shield, snood or piece of fabric is not considered an acceptable alternative for a mask.

What else can I do to protect myself?

Professor Gerry FitzGerald leaning on a railing outside, smilingProfessor Gerry FitzGerald leaning on a railing outside, smiling
QUT professor of public health and disaster management Gerry FitzGerald says regular hand washing, physical distancing and keeping rooms well ventilated are also helpful strategies.(Supplied: QUT)

Ultimately, when it comes to the flu, experts say vaccination is the single best preventative measure.

Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales are all offering free influenza vaccinations, in response to rising case numbers.

“The principle thing people can do is get vaccinated,” Professor Fitzgerald said.

“Everybody should be trying to get their flu vaccine for this year… that will provide the best level of protection.”

While a mask can be used as an extra precaution, frequent hand washing, physical distancing and keeping rooms well ventilated remain effective tools to prevent the flu, COVID and other viral infections.

“It’s about being careful – staying away from congested areas if possible… wearing masks on public transport and high-risk environments… and social distancing,” Professor FitzGerald said.

Infectious diseases physician Paul Griffin urged people with disabilities and chronic diseases to also wear a mask in public areas and to try and avoid high-risk settings.

“For example, if there’s a plan for a large gathering, trying to hold it outdoors and focus on ventilation… with open windows, air purifiers,” Dr Griffin said.

“Those sort of things to reduce risks.”

Posted 2h ago2 hours agoThu 2 Jun 2022 at 7:49pm, updated 49m ago49 minutes agoThu 2 Jun 2022 at 9:18pm

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