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ADVANCE Perspective: Respiratory Views

Face Masks: To Wear or Not to Wear?

Published January 30, 2009 12:00 PM by Frank Visco
Wearing a face mask may increase your chances of avoiding the flu by 400 percent, according to a recent Australian study.

During the winters of 2006 and 2007, researchers at the University of New South Wales observed more than 280 adults from 143 families in Sydney. Adults who wore face masks were four times more likely than those who didn't to avoid being infected by children with respiratory infections. As a result, researchers suggest that wearing face masks may be vital during flu pandemics when vaccines and drugs may be in short supply.

It's an interesting idea, and it has been kicked around before. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted a study that indicated masks could help cut flu symptoms in half.

Eventually, the recommendation for masks that came along with that study was later knocked down to a suggestion to consider. It might not seem like much, but the wording there is important, as it seems to have implied that, although the CDC wanted to suggest them, the evidence wasn't strong enough to do so. This was especially true considering the possibility that masks could potentially trap virus-laden droplets.

In debating this "wear/don't wear" issue, the CDC came up with a list of guidelines that advised people to wear masks during a pandemic in crowded places, if a family member is sick, or if you yourself are sick and don't want to infect those around you. However, worried that people would think they had "the magic bullet," doctors stressed that masks aren't foolproof and that they shouldn't take the place of basic precautions (i.e. hand sanitation, avoiding the infected).

With the release of this new study, the debate over face masks will likely continue. They seem to be effective, but are they effective enough to outweigh the potential risks of trapping viruses and making people feel like the have a magic force field of protection?

Researchers undoubtedly will continue to mull the issue. What do you think?

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