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Cold, Flu, & Cough Health Center

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Swine Flu FAQ

Answers to your questions about swine flu.

Should I wear a face mask or respirator?

Short answer: Maybe. Face masks and respirators may very well offer extra protection, but should not be your first line of defense against either pandemic or seasonal flu.

Every day, newspapers carry pictures of people wearing face masks to prevent swine flu transmission. But very little is known about whether face masks actually protect against the flu.

There's a difference between a face mask and a respirator. A face mask does not seal tightly to the face. Face masks include masks labeled as surgical, dental, medical procedure, isolation, or laser masks. Respirators are N95- or higher-rated filtering face pieces that fit snugly to the face. Respirators filter out virus particles when correctly adjusted -- which is not as simple as it sounds. But it's hard to breathe through them for extended periods, and they cannot be worn by children or by people with facial hair.

People who have flu-like symptoms should carry disposable tissues to cover their coughs and sneezes. When going out in public, or when sharing common spaces around the home with family members, they should put on a face mask -- if one is available and tolerable.

People not at risk of severe flu illness can best protect themselves from swine flu with frequent hand washing and by staying at least 6 feet away from people with flu symptoms. But if swine flu is circulating in the community, a face mask or respirator may be protective in crowded public places.

People at increased risk of severe flu illness -- pregnant women, for example -- should add a face mask to these tried-and-true precautions when providing assistance to a person with flu-like illness. And anyone else who cannot avoid close contact with someone who has swine flu (if you must hold a sick infant, for example) may try using a face mask or respirator.

How long does the flu virus survive on surfaces?

Flu bugs can survive for hours on surfaces. One study showed that flu viruses can live for up to 48 hours on hard, nonporous surfaces such as stainless steel and for up to 12 hours on cloth and tissues. The virus seems to survive for only minutes on your hands -- but that's plenty of time for you to transfer it to your mouth, nose, or eyes.

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