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. Reports of new victims and locations are emerging daily. The coronavirus (officially called 2019-nCoV) appears to have been originally transmitted from animals — likely snakes or bats — to humans in Wuhan, China. It appears similar in many ways to SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which broke out in China in 2002–2004 or MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), which broke out in Saudi Arabia and South Korea between 2012 and 2015. As of the time of publication, 76 people have died from the coronavirus, according to The New York Times.

Public health experts say the virus can spread as people who have been infected travel. Already, there are confirmed coronavirus cases in many other countries, including the U.S. There are many things you can’t control while you’re flying in a plane — such as who is assigned to sit next to you and whether they’re carrying some sort of communicable germ — but there are things you can control.

Given the growing concern over the coronavirus as it relates to travel, we reached out to Wai Haung Yu, Ph.D., a research scientist, to ask if medical face masks can protect against the coronavirus. Dr. Yu is not only an expert in the field but also a frequent flyer.

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What are the basics travelers need to know about Coronavirus?

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

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

(Photo by d3sign/Getty Images)
Face masks are designed to help protect us from both spreading and contracting an illness. (Photo by d3sign/Getty Images)

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 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.

Will a mask help?

Sort of.

“If the person who has the flu-like symptoms wears a mask, they’ll sneeze into the mask instead of into the air. At the very least, they should be sneezing or coughing into a strong-ply tissue like we were taught growing up,” says Dr. Yu.

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 you don’t ensure it fits properly,” he says. 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 says that 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.

At the end of the day, if wearing a mask 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.

What can help is a povidone-iodine gargle that can deactivate the virus in an infected person’s mouth to reduce transmission to others. This, however, won’t remove the virus in the person’s body.

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 that they can block. For example, a mask listed as N95% will keep out 95% of particles, an N99 blocks 99%, and so on.

A general patient mask will likely block moisture, but as the mask is not completely sealed, it won’t necessarily block anything incoming. There’s still a risk of inhaling the virus.

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.

(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)

You’ll also want to keep your hands clean — use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds using soap and water — especially before eating or touching your face.

Dr. Yu also notes that the likelihood of encountering someone with the coronavirus who hasn’t been in the Wuhan region is minimal. In fact, you’re more likely to contract the flu, which affects up to 20% of the U.S. population each year. Either way, you’ll want to practice good hygiene, especially while traveling.

In addition to good hand-washing practices, the CDC recommends that travelers avoid nonessential travel to Hubei Province, China, where Wuhan is located. You should also avoid contact with sick people, animals, animal markets and products that come from animals.

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

If you traveled to China 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. If you have to travel and you’re the one coughing and sneezing, wearing a mask may help protect your seat neighbors from catching what you’ve got.

Featured photo by Rapeepong Puttakumwong/Getty Images.

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