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From flu to RSV, masks offer everyday protection from respiratory illnesses

December 15, 2022
by Jane E. Dee

Annual spikes in respiratory infections are predictable during cold-weather months. With the flu and COVID-19 surging, as well as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in children, public health experts are reminding people that masks offer everyday protection from respiratory illnesses.

Mask use is well-documented for reducing respiratory viral spread, said Sten Vermund, the Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Public Health at Yale School of Public Health, and professor of pediatrics at Yale School of Medicine. For people who are especially vulnerable, such as older people or people who are immunosuppressed, masks continue to offer an extra layer of protection. If there is a vulnerable person in a household or workplace, masking also can help by minimizing the risk of bringing viruses home, Vermund said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seasonal influenza viruses are transmitted from person to person, primarily through virus-laden droplets that are generated when infected people speak, cough, or sneeze. As we learned with COVID-19, the best way to avoid catching a virus is to get vaccinated, wash your hands regularly, stay home when you are sick, and wear a mask in crowded indoor places.

The CDC estimates that so far this season, there have been at least 15 million illnesses, 150,000 hospitalizations, and 9,300 deaths from flu. Children are being hospitalized with RSV at higher rates than in previous years. 

Masking During the Holidays

During the busy holiday season, wearing a mask is one of several everyday precautions that people can take to reduce their chances of catching or spreading a respiratory virus.

N95 and KN95 masks are more readily available now than they were early in the pandemic. They should not be washed, however, after wearing them if you leave them out for one week, any viruses that might be caught would be expected to die. Then the mask can be reused. Surgical masks are a good choice and are disposable when frayed or soiled; two can be worn, one on top of the other, to maximize the fit. If none of these is available, a double-ply cloth mask that can be washed and reused offers some protection, Vermund said.

The CDC has provided helpful tips for the correct and consistent care of masks:

  1. Wear a mask correctly (proper mask size and fit)
  2. Avoid touching the mask and face
  3. Wash or sanitize your hands after removing a mask
  4. If you are taking off your mask to eat or drink outside of your home, you can place the mask somewhere safe to keep it clean, such as your pocket, purse, or paper bag. After eating, put the mask back on with the same side facing out. This is the blue colored-side for surgical masks.

Even as vaccines have empowered us to no longer universally or routinely use masks to prevent COVID-19, masks can still be a vital tool for respiratory virus prevention as transmission surges in our winter months.

More information about the use and care of masks can be found here.

Submitted by Jane E. Dee on December 16, 2022