By Josephine Marcotty
Every news photo on swine flu shows people wearing masks. Surgical masks. Construction masks. White masks. Blue masks.
But here’s a tip — most masks don’t really protect you. There is only one type called N95 that stops the spread of infection. And those masks are expensive, hard to come by and are only really worthwhile in a close setting — like a hospital or clinic — where you are in close proximity to someone who might be infectious.
This is how Mike Osterholm, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Minnesota, explains it.
Flu viruses are transmitted by droplets that are dispersed by coughing or sneezing. “Droplets fall within 5 to 8 feet” of the person spreading them, he said. So a mask is only effective if you are standing within 5 to 8 feet of someone who is coughing or sneezing, and not covering it up. (You know…. “cover your cough.”) And that mask has to be made in a way that blocks the droplets. Most masks don’t. Only the N95 masks fit tightly around the mouth and nose and prevent all droplets from penetrating through the mask.
In fact, most people don’t get sick from inhaling someone’s infected droplets. Most pick up a virus by touching a surface like a door knob or hand rail, and then touching their own mouth, nose or eye. That gives a virus left behind by someone else a happy landing in your body.
Dr. Ruth Lynfield, Minnesota’s state epidemiologist, says the only way masks slow infection is by inhibiting people from touching their mouth or nose. It’s far more effective to wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and cover your cough, she said.
So what’s the harm if a mask makes you feel safer? Maybe nothing. But Osterholm, who has a knack for seeing the dark side, questions what might happen if there is a pandemic and we run out of masks that don’t really do any goood anyway. “You will see people panic because they can’t get their mask,” he said.
And panic may be worse than a pandemic.