Do Face Coverings Also Protect Against the Flu?

A woman shopping at the grocery store wearing a mask.
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Recently, we’ve learned the importance of wearing a face covering to help stop the spread of coronavirus through our communities. It is recommended, and in some places, required, to wear a mask, especially when it’s not possible to practice social distancing.  

But with flu season approaching, is it possible we’ll see fewer cases of the flu due to safety measures like social distancing and mask-wearing? 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) believes “it’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading,” so, “getting a flu vaccine will be more important than ever.” 

How Does the Flu Compare to COVID-19? 

Like COVID-19, the flu spreads from person to person, and “people with flu can spread it to others up to about 6 feet away.” The flu is thought to also spread by respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks. The respiratory droplets can then land in the mouths or noses of others nearby, spreading the infection.  

From the data available now, we know coronavirus is also transmitted mainly from person to person when those people are within 6 feet of each other, and primarily through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. And although COVID-19 and the flu are spread in similar ways, “COVID-19 has been observed to have more superspreading events than the flu,” says the CDC. That means COVID-19 can spread faster and more easily to a lot of people.  

A major difference between coronavirus and the flu is that a person with coronavirus takes anywhere from two to 14 days to show symptoms after being infected, while the flu usually takes roughly one to four days after infection. For both COVID-19 and the flu, however, it’s possible to spread the virus for at least one day before experiencing any symptoms.  

For additional information on the similarities and differences between COVID-19 and the flu, read more from the CDC.  

Preventing the Flu 

To protect yourself and others against viruses like the flu and COVID-19, the following steps are recommended: 

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick 

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth  

  • Clean frequently touched surfaces, such as doorknobs and faucets, often 

  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and immediately dispose of it 

  • Stay home if you don’t feel well 

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer  

Because the way the flu spreads is so similar to the way COVID-19 spreads, wearing a cloth face covering may also help prevent flu spread. In a 2013 study, researchers found that masks led to a reduction in how much flu virus was spread into the airwaves.  

Unfortunately, there is not yet a vaccine for COVID-19, but thankfully, we do have a flu vaccine, and that is the top recommendation for preventing the flu. The CDC advises all people 6 months and older to get an annual flu vaccine. 

The CDC also recommends that we wear cloth face coverings in public settings and when around people who don’t live in the same household, especially when social distancing is difficult to maintain.  

How Does a Face Covering Help?  

There is new evidence that supports cloth face coverings help prevent people who are already ill from spreading their germs to others. In the instance of COVID-19, if you have the virus and are asymptomatic, the mask can help stop the spread, and if you do not have the virus and are healthy, your mask can prevent you from catching the virus from someone else.  

Face Mask Hygiene 

Before putting on or removing your cloth face mask, wash your hands thoroughly to prevent any germs from your hands spreading into your respiratory system. To help ensure the effectiveness of your face covering, also consider these tips: 

  • Avoid touching the mask while it’s on your face 

  • Put on and remove your mask by the ear loops or ties rather than touching the front of the mask 

  • Sanitize your mask often, either by hand washing or putting it in the washing machine 

Who Shouldn’t Wear a Face Covering? 

The great majority of people should be wearing masks in public settings. However, according to the CDC, face coverings should not be worn by: 

  • Anyone who has trouble breathing 

  • Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the covering without assistance 

  • Children younger than 2  

More Information 

We may face a challenging flu season as COVID-19 remains a threat, but we’re here to support your family with the information you need. To learn more about ways to prevent the flu and coronavirus, click here. You can also find updates and answers to your coronavirus-related questions on our Coronavirus Resource Hub

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