Can a Mask Prevent Swine Flu?
Michael W. Smith, MD
While a mask could theoretically help prevent swine flu, it's a bit much for most people and really not necessary at this point.
Sure, if someone is coughing or sneezing in your face, a mask might help. Also, if you know that you're going to be around someone with swine flu, such as a loved one, a mask might be warranted. But otherwise, that's not the most effective strategy for preventing swine flu because you don't catch most respiratory viruses from people coughing in your face.
Here's what generally happens. Someone with a virus sneezes or coughs in their hand. Then, they touch something like an elevator button or a doorknob. You come along a few minutes later and touch that same button or knob. Then, without thinking about it, you touch your face – your mouth, nose, or eyes – and the virus takes hold of you.
As mundane as it sounds, the most effective way to prevent getting respiratory viruses like swine flu is washing your hands. But most of us don't do it often enough and don't do it the right way.
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Obviously, the biggest risk is when you're in a public place. So, I do whatever I can to not touch anything when I'm out and about – or at least make double sure not to touch my face out in public.
To be more specific, here's my strategy when I go into a public restroom. It goes without saying that I make sure to not touch my face once entering the restroom. But after I've taken care of my business, I wash my hands for a good 20 seconds. I know it feels like a long time, but believe me, it's worth it. Need to occupy yourself? Sing happy birthday -- twice -- to pass the right amount of time.
Then, when you're done, don't touch a thing but a paper towel. Contort yourself or do whatever you need to do to get that paper towel without touching anything else. Turn the water off using the paper towel. Open the door to leave the restroom with the paper towel. And don't touch anything else with your hands – without the paper towel. I throw the paper towel away when I get back in my office.
Washing your hands is extremely important after you sneeze or cough into your hands. Not around soap and water? Alcohol-based hand gels are also very effective for killing flu viruses.
And if you have any swine flu symptoms, the CDC says call your doctor. It's also a good idea to practice social isolation. Keep to yourself until you're all better to prevent spreading your germs around.
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