Why Facemasks Are Still Important Against Respiratory Diseases

Masks are important tools to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses. Wearing a mask can help prevent the spread of the flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), COVID-19, and other viruses. They can especially help during respiratory virus season when community virus levels are higher.

Although influenza, RSV, and other viruses often cause minor, cold-like symptoms, they also put some people at risk of severe illness. This includes older adults, young children, immunocompromised people, and those with underlying health conditions. By wearing a mask, you’re doing your part to protect both yourself and others in the community.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, facemasks became a widely used tool for preventing the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Many places where the risk of disease transmission was highest, such as indoor public places, required masks.

Wearing a facemask is an effective tool for preventing the spread of respiratory diseases like:

  • COVID-19.
  • Influenza (the flu).
  • RSV.

Wearing a mask can protect you and others around you from disease. With the respiratory virus season in full swing, learn why wearing a mask is still an important preventive tool.

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Do Masks Prevent Disease?

Masks are effective ways at both preventing spread and protecting against exposure. They’re especially effective when combined with other protective measures. Acceptable masks include N95, KN95, surgical masks, and cloth masks that adequately cover the nose and mouth.

There were lower rates of flu cases worldwide in 2020, 2021, and 2022. A 2023 study in Viruses linked the reduction in cases with higher amounts of mask-wearing across the globe.

A 2022 study in Frontiers in Public Health analyzed 31 different studies on facemasks. It found facemasks were effective at preventing respiratory viral infections. Different kinds of masks — including N95 masks, surgical masks, and common masks — were all effective, the study reported.

Similarly, a 2022 study in PLOS ONE analyzed 18 different studies on facemasks. It reported that facemasks can decrease the spread of respiratory viruses in the community, especially when combined with other protective efforts.

There are fewer studies of facemasks’ effectiveness against RSV, a respiratory virus that’s often more severe for infants and older adults. But a Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society study reported much lower RSV rates in health care workers who wore masks.

Along with masks, other measures that can limit respiratory virus spread include staying home when sick and keeping good hand hygiene.

Vaccines also can be effective either at preventing disease or preventing serious illness and death.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends all Americans 6 months and older receive flu and COVID-19 vaccines. Seasonal flu and COVID-19 vaccines provide important updates for your immune system.

There also is an RSV vaccine for certain populations, including older adults and people who are between the 32nd and 36th week of pregnancy during RSV season. Talk to your doctor about whether you’re eligible for the RSV vaccine.

When Should You Wear a Facemask?

There’s no “wrong” time to wear a facemask — they can help prevent the spread of respiratory viruses at any time. But they’re especially important in situations that pose a higher risk of transmission. They’re also critical when you’re with someone who’s at risk of severe illness.

Please note that children ages 2 years old and younger shouldn’t wear a mask. If you’re older than 2, appropriate situations for wearing a mask can include:

  • If you must meet with other people when you’re ill, wearing a mask can help prevent your illness from spreading to others. When possible, staying home if you’re ill is best. Wear a mask when going to a doctor’s appointment or otherwise outside of your home.
  • If you’re in a crowded indoor public space. Crowded indoor public places carry a higher risk of transmission because there’s less opportunity for physical distancing. Wearing a mask can protect both yourself and others.
  • If you’re immunocompromised or at a higher risk of severe illness. If you have an underlying medical condition or you’re immunocompromised, you may already wear a mask. Protecting yourself as much as possible is important.
  • If you’re with someone who’s at higher risk for severe illness. This can include infants and young children, older adults, immunocompromised people, and those who have underlying health conditions. These groups are at a greater risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death from respiratory illnesses. Wearing a mask can protect them.
  • When traveling. Traveling carries a higher risk of disease transmission. That’s especially the case if you’re traveling by plane, bus, train, or other high-frequency public transportation options. Wearing a mask when you’re traveling and around large groups of people can help protect both you and others. View the CDC guidelines for masking while traveling.
  • Where required. There’s no longer a universal masking policy in the U.S. But state or local governments or businesses may still require mask-wearing. Respecting those guidelines is important.

Though those are just some reasons to wear a mask, remember that there’s no wrong reason. If you feel most comfortable wearing a mask, feel free to wear a mask. It can protect you and others around you.

To find out if masking is currently required at UPMC facilities, please call 833-390-9489 or visit UPMC.com/VisitorInfo. Those with symptoms of a respiratory illness are required to mask at all times to prevent spread.

Yiming Chen, Yuelin Wang, Ningbin Quan, et al, Frontiers in Public Health, Associations Between Wearing Masks and Respiratory Viral Infections: A Meta-Analysis and Systematic Review. Link

Hanna M. Ollila, Markku Partinen, Jukka Koskela, et al, PLOS One, Face Masks to Prevent Transmission of Respiratory Infections: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials on Face Mask Use. Link

Hikaru Takeuchi and Ryuta Kawashima, Viruses, Disappearance and Re-Emergence of Influenza During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Association with Infection Control Measures. Link

About UPMC

Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.