Should you wear a protective mask if H1N1, or swine flu, reaches your community? Generally, only if you're contagious or at high risk for serious complications from the disease, according to interim recommendations from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published in August.
There's little known about how effectively masks might prevent H1N1 transmission in different settings. "Respirator" masks rated "N95" conform snugly to the face and theoretically provide more protection against breathing in tiny viral particles than face masks that fit loosely, as some surgical masks do. The CDC does not recommend respirator masks for children or people with facial hair because they usually don't fit well.
People with confirmed or suspected H1N1 should wear a face mask (not a respirator) if they can tolerate it, the CDC says, or use tissues to cover coughs and sneezes at home and in public to prevent spreading the virus. Sick family members should stay at least 6 feet away from other people for at least 24 hours after their fever ends. Children might be contagious longer.
People at high risk for serious complications should protect themselves by avoiding crowds; if that's not possible, consider wearing a face mask or N95 respirator, the CDC says. Wearing a mask at home isn't necessary unless you're caring for an infected housemate. People at high risk for serious illness from H1N1 include:
- Children under age 5 and those under age 18 who are on long-term aspirin therapy and might be at risk for Reye's syndrome after infection with the flu.
- Pregnant women.
- People 65 or older and residents in nursing homes and chronic-care facilities.
- Anyone whose immune system is compromised or who has asthma or chronic pulmonary, cardiovascular, liver-related, hematological, neurologic, neuromuscular, or metabolic disorders, including diabetes.
Bottom line. Even if you wear a mask, remember that washing your hands with soap and water or with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer is important. If you do use a mask, follow instructions and bag and dispose of it when it's damaged or soiled, or if breathing becomes difficult. Reusable fabric face masks should be laundered and tumble-dried on high. After taking off a mask, wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer.