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Health

Wearing a mask doesn't fend off the flu

Jamie Martines
| Friday, Jan. 19, 2018, 3:45 p.m.
Damien Dancy puts masks on his children Damaya, 3, left, and Damien, 7, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va.   Hospitals in Hampton Roads are urging patients and visitors to wear a mask at their facilities to help stop the spread of the flu. The recommendation was issued Wednesday by more than two dozen medical centers. In a joint statement, the hospitals said the recommendation applies to hospitals, urgent care centers and branch clinics, among others. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Stephen M. Katz)
Damien Dancy puts masks on his children Damaya, 3, left, and Damien, 7, on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013 at Sentara Princess Anne Hospital in Virginia Beach, Va. Hospitals in Hampton Roads are urging patients and visitors to wear a mask at their facilities to help stop the spread of the flu. The recommendation was issued Wednesday by more than two dozen medical centers. In a joint statement, the hospitals said the recommendation applies to hospitals, urgent care centers and branch clinics, among others. (AP Photo/The Virginian-Pilot, Stephen M. Katz)

Wearing a mask to prevent catching the flu won't hurt. But experts say it's not the only precaution you should take.

“The studies have shown that when you wear a surgical mask, you do reduce transmission,” said Richard Zimmerman, UPMC professor of family medicine and public health.

But Zimmerman says there are a few caveats.

Surgical masks could be effective for blocking “large droplets,” particles that are transmitted when an infected person coughs or sneezes near you. Large droplets only travel short distances — less than 3 feet — and do not remain suspended in the air. But masks don't do much for keeping out “small droplets” — particles that also can get you sick.

To protect against small droplets, you would need a heavy-duty, professional-grade mask that must be measured and fitted, he said.

Both large and small droplets can travel through the air or hang out on surfaces, waiting to be picked up when you shake hands or pick up an object, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Any direct contact of contaminated stuff to your face could give you flu,” Zimmerman said.

The good news: Zimmerman said that wearing a mask could keep you from touching your nose or mouth area. So if you do touch someone or something carrying the flu virus, wearing a mask could remind you to keep your hands away from your face.

That being said, your eyes are still exposed. Be sure to wash your hands frequently, especially if you need to touch your face.

If you need to cough or sneeze, reach for a tissue and throw it away immediately. If you don't have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow or upper sleeve — not your hand, according to guidelines from the state Department of Health.

The Department of Health also encourages the public to get the flu vaccine each season.

Allegheny County reported 2,982 flu cases through Saturday, while Westmoreland County had 924. There have been 377 cases so far in Butler County and 773 in Washington County.

Kyler Baughman, 21, of Latrobe, died of flu-related complications in December. Three Allegheny County residents died of flu-related complications this month.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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