Flu season has well and truly arrived in Australia and is shaping up to be one of the worst in years as the number of cases continues to rise.
It can be an unpleasant disease, and coupled with COVID-19, which is still circulating in the community, it is already straining the country’s hospital and health services.
Some health experts, including Queensland’s Deputy Chief Health Officer, have called on people to consider wearing face masks in public again to reduce the spread of flu and COVID.
Masks have been an essential tool throughout the pandemic to stop the spread of the virus – so can they do the same with the flu?
Will wearing a mask prevent me from catching the flu?
Gerry Fitzgerald, professor of public health and disaster management at Queensland University of Technology, said masks can certainly offer some protection in reducing the spread of flu, but are more effective if you are already infected.
“Masks that are generally available don’t offer much protection to the individual due to their lightweight material,” he said.
“When you exhale, the majority of the virus particles you exhale are… bigger.
“[When your face is covered]which reduces their likelihood [infected people] spread it to uninfected people. »
The flu spreads easily, mainly through sneezing and coughing.
Professor Fitzgerald said the effectiveness of masks also depends on what type you wear and how you wear it.
More on that soon.
Where should I wear a mask?
Professor Fitzgerald said people should definitely wear a mask in the following contexts:
- Retirement homes for the elderly
- Disabled facilities
- In public transports
- In “congested” areas
“Influenza is a less serious illness than COVID-19 but it is serious nonetheless… and it causes a number of deaths each year,” Professor Fitzgerald said.
“So in terms of flu protection, in high-risk settings, or where social distancing isn’t possible, certainly [you should wear a mask].
“The quick answer is – if you’re in circumstances where it’s hard to keep a distance from others, it’s worth considering wearing a mask.”
What mask should I wear?
A face mask can be a reusable cloth face mask or a single-use surgical mask, which includes a P2 or N95 mask.
For it to be effective, it should cover your nose and mouth and fit snugly under your chin, across the bridge of your nose, and against the sides of your face.
Surgical masks can prevent other people’s respiratory droplets from being released when a person breathes, speaks, coughs or sneezes, but they have design flaws and should only be worn once.
N95 masks are standard in hospital infection control wards and high-risk medical environments.
Professor Fitzgerald said N95 masks offer more protection but are more difficult to wear.
“There are higher quality masks…N95 is the most common…but the problem with these is that they are a little harder to breathe in,” he said.
“And they need to be applied carefully and changed frequently.”
Ultimately, you need to wear a mask that fits you well and that you can wear properly.
A scarf, bandana, face shield, neckerchief or piece of cloth is not considered an acceptable alternative for a mask.
What else can I do to protect myself?
Ultimately, when it comes to the flu, experts say vaccination is the best preventative measure.
Queensland, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia and New South Wales are all offering free flu vaccinations, in response to rising case numbers.
“The main thing people can do is get vaccinated,” Professor Fitzgerald said.
“Everyone should try to get the flu shot this year…which will provide the best level of protection.”
Although a mask can be used as an added precaution, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and good room ventilation are still effective tools to prevent influenza, COVID, and other viral infections.
“It’s about being careful – staying out of congested areas if possible…wearing masks on public transport and high-risk environments…and social distancing,” Professor Fitzgerald said. .
Infectious disease doctor Paul Griffin has urged people with disabilities and chronic illnesses to also wear a mask in public spaces and try to avoid high-risk environments.
“For example, if there’s a plan for a large gathering, try to hold it outdoors and focus on ventilation…with open windows, air purifiers,” Dr. Griffin said.
“These kinds of things to reduce risk.”
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