As another outbreak of the bird flu is creating concern globally, the focus for the elderly should be on what they can do to prevent infections. Seniors are considered as high risk individuals not only for contracting infections but also for experiencing the most serious complications as a result of these infections. Vaccinations, when available, are therefore considered extremely important for the elderly. However, this is not the only preventative measure that is at your disposal. Flu masks have become one of the popular options for personal protection against infectious diseases, especially during outbreaks. But is it really necessary and truly helpful?
Flu masks work lie a filter of sorts. The very tiny pores in the mask will allow air to flow through but not droplets containing bacteria and most viruses. It is essentially a surgical mask worn in an operating theater by medical professionals. The purpose during surgery is to protect both patient and surgeon. Most airborne infections like the flu are transmitted through the droplets of mucus and saliva that an infected person expels into the air when coughing or sneezing. These droplets are laden with the virus. While the mask itself may not always be able to filter the virus on its own, it can effectively block the much larger droplets containing the virus.
Flu masks in the United States became more popular after the fear around the H1N1 (2009 swine flu) outbreak. It is not considered unusual to now see people wearing these masks but it is still not a common practice in the US even during outbreaks. Flu masks are somewhat common in certain countries where people voluntarily use it when they are sick. It is means of being considerate for others around them and not passing on their infection. However, it is also used by some people who are concerned about getting infected just as much as it is for them infecting others.
There has been some debate about the effectiveness of flu masks when worn as a protective measure by the general public. It has been shown to be effective for protection within the community if combined with regular use of a hand sanitizer. It has also shown to be very effective in protecting the people living in the same house as a person with an infection.
However, flu masks are not as effective a preventative measure as getting vaccinated and keeping your immune system up by living a healthy life. Masks that offer a tighter seal are usually not practical for everyday use. Furthermore the contamination of the hands and the subsequent contact with the mouth or nose are more likely routes of transmission than inhaling the air containing infected droplets.
Nevertheless for seniors, and for people who work closely with the elderly, flu face masks may be worth considering as a means of protection. It is advisable to first consult with a doctor and not ignore more definitive protective measures by opting for a face mask. While it does not hurt to be cautious, face masks should not be used obsessively due to fear of falling ill even when there is no concern about an outbreak.