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Avian Flu: 10 Questions, 10 Answers

What You Can Do; What the Government Is Doing

3. What can I do about bird flu? continued...

If a sick person can tolerate it, a normal surgical mask (tie on) or procedure mask (ear loops) would make them less likely to spread infection. The CDC advises offering these masks to a person infected with flu-related cough. If a mask isn't available, coughing or sneezing into a tissue would work almost as well.

The World Health Organization says that face masks aren't likely to significantly affect the spread of a pandemic virus. They don't advise them -- but as people are going to use them anyway, they don't advise against them, either.

Flu expert John Treanor, MD, tells WebMD that wearing a facemask would help a little bit: It would stop you from touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. That would help, because a major mode of flu transmission is from touching people or surfaces contaminated with flu virus and then touching your face.

But no expert really expects facemasks to prevent the spread of pandemic flu virus in a community. Everybody wore one in 1918; it was still a terrible pandemic.

The most effective facemasks for protecting uninfected people, Treanor says, would be the N95-rated masks. These disposable masks are relatively cheap -- although more expensive than surgical masks -- but likely will be in short supply if a pandemic arrives. They should offer "some protection," Treanor says, but "no one thinks they will be completely effective." N95 masks aren't necessary for infected people.

Those caring for sick people during a flu pandemic should wear a facemask, according to WHO and CDC recommendations.

The best way to limit the spread of flu isn't a facemask. It's following these simple hygiene rules:

  • Wash your hands often using soap and water. You can also use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • When you cough or sneeze, use a tissue to cover your mouth and nose. Discard used tissues in a wastebasket.
  • Don't have a tissue? Cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve.
  • Clean your hands after coughing or sneezing. Use soap and water or an alcohol hand sanitizer.
  • Stay at home if you are sick.

Even if you get sick during a flu pandemic, you're less likely to get severely ill if you're healthy. If you're worried about getting the flu:

  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy products.
  • Drink a lot of water. If you drink alcohol, be moderate.
  • Regular exercise is essential for good health.
  • Get a full night's sleep every night.

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