Myth-busting: Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?

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The fast-moving coronavirus is on everyone’s mind, as reports of new victims and outbreaks continue to emerge daily.

The virus that first dramatically impacted Wuhan, China, causes a disease called COVID-19 and appears similar in many ways to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which erupted in China between 2002 and 2004 and MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), which broke out in Saudi Arabia and South Korea between 2012 and 2015.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

Since the outbreak began in late December 2019, the new coronavirus has spread to over 62 countries, with over 92,000 cases and roughly 3,200 deaths as of this writing in early March. There have been several main clusters of the outbreak outside of China, including South Korea, Japan, Italy, Iran and even the formerly quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship. Locally transmitted cases are now being reported in the U.S.

As such, the outbreak has many travelers wondering what they can do to prevent the spread of it, especially while overseas, or increasingly even while traveling domestically.

There are many variables you can’t control while in the air — such as who is assigned to sit next to you and whether he or she is carrying some sort of communicable germ — but there are factors you can control. We reached out via email to Wai Haung Yu, Ph.D., a research scientist and frequent traveler, to get the scoop on if the medical face masks you keep seeing will help keep you safe on a plane.

Dr. Yu’s responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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What are the basics travelers need to know about Coronavirus?

The virus has a long latency period (likely between one and 14 days or even longer) between exposure and when the symptoms begin to appear, Dr. Yu explained, so it’s possible to transmit the disease without knowing you have it. If that’s the case, the transmission would occur from saliva or moisture from the mouth from an event such as coughing or sneezing.

Signs that you do have the virus include shortness of breath, dry cough, fever, fatigue and muscle aches, which are very similar to having the common flu. While some people also report a runny nose, headaches, sneezing or a sore throat, these symptoms rare — fewer than 10%, of cases.

Related: What the spread of the deadly new virus means for travelers

A traveler wearing a protective face masks pushes his luggage on a cart in Amsterdam Schiphol airport on February 2, 2020. - A number of airlines, including Netherlands
(Photo by EVERT ELZINGA/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

If you’re traveling, know there may be risk factors that could determine if you’re at greater risk of contracting the disease and how it progresses if you do. While 83% of diagnosed cases are considered mild, the other 17% are considered more serious and potentially life-threatening, Dr. Yu said.

Currently, the mortality rate is about 3.5%, but this number varies greatly depending on the region. While the data is still being assessed, it does appear that you have a significantly greater risk if you are over 50 years old and contract the disease. This may be due to higher preexisting conditions such as pulmonary disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension, as well as those with weakened immune systems.

Are you allowed to wear a medical face mask on flights?

Yes, you’re allowed to wear a face mask in flight, according to the TSA. In fact, in other parts of the world, such as Asia, masks are pretty common both on planes and in daily life.

Can a face mask help keep you safe from coronavirus?

From what we know, the transmission of coronavirus is generally limited to the distance you cough or sneeze — which is about six to eight feet. If you do get this type of virus on a plane, it’s likely because of a person seated within two rows around you. This information, Dr. Yu said, has been used as guidance for identifying individuals who are notified (of exposure) and may be considered for testing.

If a person who has flu-like symptoms wears a mask, they’ll sneeze into the mask instead of into the air, said Dr. Yu. At the very least, he or she should be sneezing or coughing into a strong tissue.

But when it comes to a healthy person wearing a mask to try to avoid germs, it’s not guaranteed to protect you against any virus, especially if the mask doesn’t fit properly. The coronavirus particles are smaller than those filtered by most of these masks, so they won’t necessarily block them. Coronavirus particles measure 0.1 micron, as opposed to the 0.3 micron blocked by most masks.

At the same time, Dr. Yu said most mainline jets are equipped with HEPA filtration systems and air exchange on a plane is quite frequent — around 20 to 30 times per hour. This filtration should remove 99.7% of all particles in the air, including biological material. And, Dr. Yu reiterated, the transmission of coronavirus is by water droplet, so the area around a person with COVID-19 is more at risk than the plane at large.

Related: How a global outbreak has left the travel industry reeling

Is there any situation in which a mask might help?

In short: No, at least not for a healthy person trying to avoid getting sick.

While the mask will help the infected person by reducing the chances they transmit the illness to others, it’s not going to do much for those looking to protect themselves. And, it will likely be uncomfortable to wear for long periods, added Dr. Yu.

Related: What it’s like to fly in the U.S. this week

If you decide to get a mask, which one should you buy?

All masks list their effectiveness in their description and will indicate the percentage of particulates they can block. For example, a mask listed as N95 will keep out 95% of particles, an N99 blocks 99% and so on. Dr. Yu also explained that, even for those percentages, the masks won’t necessarily stop the coronavirus in particular, as it’s a smaller virus than the particles filtered by most of these masks.

A general patient mask will likely block moisture, but as the mask is not completely sealed, it won’t necessarily block anything incoming, so there’s still a risk of inhaling the virus. So, Dr. Yu said it’s important that a mask is fitted professionally because if it leaks, you’re not protected. Additionally, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that facial hair may reduce the effectiveness of a mask.

A fit test is also good, as it will let you practice using a mask. Having just completed a test for work, Dr. Yu said it’s really not comfortable. If you’re wearing a mask, removal is also very important: Lift with the straps, and make sure you do not touch the mask itself, as this could be contaminated.

In general, Dr. Yu encourages masks if you have the flu or cold, or even COVID-19, as it limits the spread of the virus which can be trapped on the inside of the mask instead of becoming airborne.

Dr. Yu also pointed out that the CDC and other leading health authorities are asking the public to refrain from purchasing masks, as it could make it difficult for healthcare workers to access these masks should the health crisis worsen.

Related: How U.S. airlines are handling change and cancellation fees

What are some other ways to stay healthy while in flight?

Dr. Yu’s best tip for avoiding the coronavirus on a flight is to treat it like you would for not getting the flu.

(Since flu viruses from a sneeze or cough can live on a surface, you’ll want to take a tip from Naomi Campbell and wipe down your armrests, tray and anything that you will touch in flight.)

If you’re concerned about getting the virus while traveling, ensure you’re stocked up on antiseptics and cleaning agents, as well as antifever medication should you contract something while traveling.

Here are TPG’s tips for sanitizing your airplane seat, as well as your hotel room.

(Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
It’s not just about the face mask. Be sure to use basic hygiene methods when traveling. (Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)

Dr. Yu also said to keep your hands clean and away from your mouth. Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer (like Purell) or soapy water for 20 seconds. Alcohol or povidone-iodine mouthwash may kill microbes in an infected person’s mouth — which temporarily reduces the spread — but it won’t remove the virus in the person’s body, said Dr. Yu.

Related: Complete guide to traveling during the deadly coronavirus outbreak

In addition to good hand-washing practices, the CDC recommends that travelers avoid nonessential travel to Level 3 destinations including China, Italy, Iran and South Korea due to the virus’ outbreak. In Japan, another country with a significant outbreak, travelers are advised to postpone nonessential travel.

You should also avoid contact with sick people, animals, animal markets and products that come from animals. When traveling, avoid touching (or kissing) relics or artifacts. If you do touch anything, refrain from touching your face or mouth and wash your hands frequently.

Related: Airlines and hotels offering full refunds in response to coronavirus outbreak

If you traveled to an at-risk area like China, Italy, Iran or South Korea in the last 14 days and feel sick with fever, cough or are having difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away — and be sure to call ahead and tell them about your recent travel and symptoms before you arrive. Try to avoid contact with others and do not travel while you’re sick.

Bottom line

There are things you can do on your next flight to reduce your risk of catching a wide variety of viruses: Wipe down the surfaces, wash your hands and practice general good hygiene measures. However, adding a face mask to your carry-on bag essentials isn’t likely to protect you from coronavirus, though it can reduce transmission if you are infected with anything from an old-fashioned cold to coronavirus. If you have to travel and you’re the one coughing and sneezing, wearing a mask may help protect your seatmates from catching whatever it is you have.

At the end of the day, if wearing a mask on the plane gives you peace of mind, you can take the precaution. And, you may see healthy flight attendants deciding to wear masks as a precaution too, especially on flights to areas where the infection has been found.

Featured photo by Rapeepong Puttakumwong/Getty Images.

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