Face Masks Might Reduce The Risk Of Getting Swine Flu

April 29, 2009|By Shari Roan | Shari Roan,Tribune Newspapers

Don't count on those disposable masks to completely protect you against the swine flu percolating around the globe.

Many people in Mexico City, as well as travelers to and from other cities, have been seen wearing mouth and nose protection of one type or another in recent days.

Most were wearing face masks, which are loose-fitting and designed to help stop droplets from spreading from the person wearing the mask. They also protect the wearer's mouth and nose from splashes. They are not created to protect the wearer from breathing in very small particles.

Respirators, on the other hand, are made for just that. They are similar in appearance to the relatively inexpensive face masks but are designed specifically to protect the wearer from breathing in such particles. These masks, known as N95 for their filtering ability, fit more snugly on the face than face masks so that air is breathed through the filter material. They work best if they are fitted to the person wearing the mask.

A respirator that fits snugly can filter out small particles that can be inhaled around the edges of a face mask. But it's easier to breathe through a face mask than a respirator over a long period of time, said experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Federal health officials said Monday that they don't know how helpful either device is in preventing swine flu infection.

If used correctly, masks and - more likely - respirators might reduce the risk of getting influenza, according to the CDC. But for people who live in areas with confirmed cases, there is no single action that will provide complete protection. It simply isn't practical to wear a mask all the time, and they are not 100 percent effective.

Face masks and respirators are most useful for people in crowded settings, such as classrooms or airplanes, to protect the mouth and nose from inhaling germs and to reduce the likelihood of coughing or sneezing on other people.

Health experts say that masks and respirators should be used along with other precautions, such as frequent hand-washing, covering coughs, staying at home if ill and avoiding crowds.

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