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Face Masks For Bird Flu?

Question: Should we all go out and buy a face mask in case of a bird flu epidemic?

Answer: Flu, including bird flu, most often spreads from large droplets coughed or sneezed from a sick person. These large droplets don't travel more than three feet. People are most likely to spread flu viruses in the first two days of illness, although they first become infectious up to a day earlier.

If a sick person can tolerate it, a normal surgical mask (tie on) or procedure mask (ear loops) would make them less likely to spread infection.

The Centers for Disease Control advises offering these masks to anyone infected with flu-related cough. If a mask isn't available, coughing or sneezing into a tissue would work almost as well.

The World Health Organization says face masks aren't likely to significantly affect the spread of a pandemic virus. They don't advise them — but because people are going to use them anyway, they don't advise against them, either.

Flu expert John Treanor, M.D. tells WebMD that wearing a face mask would help a little bit: It would stop you from touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. A major mode of flu transmission is touching people or surfaces contaminated with flu virus and then touching your face.

But no expert really expects face masks to prevent the spread of a pandemic flu virus in a community. Everybody wore one in 1918; yet there was still a terrible pandemic.

The most effective face masks for protecting uninfected people, Treanor says, would be the N95-rated masks. These disposable masks are relatively cheap — although more expensive than surgical masks — but likely will be in short supply if a pandemic arrives. They should offer some protection, Treanor says, but "no one thinks they will be completely effective." N95 masks aren't necessary for infected people.

Those caring for sick people during a flu pandemic should wear a face mask, according to WHO and CDC recommendations.

The best way to limit the spread of flu isn't a face mask. It's following these simple hygiene rules:

  • Wash your hands often using soap and water. You can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • When you cough or sneeze, use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose. Discard used tissues in a wastebasket.
  • Don't have a tissue? Cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve.
  • Clean your hands after coughing or sneezing. Use soap and water or an alcohol hand sanitizer.
  • Stay at home if you are sick.

    SOURCES: WebMD Medical News: "Bird Flu: 10 Questions, 10 Answers."

    By Michael W. Smith, M.D. © 2006, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved

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