The Use of Masks and Respirators to Prevent Transmission of Influenza

A Systematic Review of the Scientific Evidence

Faisal bin-Reza; Vicente Lopez Chavarrias; Angus Nicoll; Mary E. Chamberland


Influenza Resp Viruses. 2012;6(4):257-267. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


There are limited data on the use of masks and respirators to reduce transmission of influenza. A systematic review was undertaken to help inform pandemic influenza guidance in the United Kingdom. The initial review was performed in November 2009 and updated in June 2010 and January 2011. Inclusion criteria included randomised controlled trials and quasi-experimental and observational studies of humans published in English with an outcome of laboratory-confirmed or clinically-diagnosed influenza and other viral respiratory infections. There were 17 eligible studies. Six of eight randomised controlled trials found no significant differences between control and intervention groups (masks with or without hand hygiene; N95/P2 respirators). One household trial found that mask wearing coupled with hand sanitiser use reduced secondary transmission of upper respiratory infection/influenza-like illness/laboratory-confirmed influenza compared with education; hand sanitiser alone resulted in no reduction. One hospital-based trial found a lower rate of clinical respiratory illness associated with non-fit-tested N95 respirator use compared with medical masks. Eight of nine retrospective observational studies found that mask and/or respirator use was independently associated with a reduced risk of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Findings, however, may not be applicable to influenza and many studies were suboptimal. None of the studies established a conclusive relationship between mask/respirator use and protection against influenza infection. Some evidence suggests that mask use is best undertaken as part of a package of personal protection especially hand hygiene. The effectiveness of masks and respirators is likely linked to early, consistent and correct usage.


Personal protective equipment to help reduce transmission of influenza is generally advised according to the risk of exposure to the influenza virus and the degree of infectivity and human pathogenicity of the virus. The paucity of scientific evidence upon which to base guidance for the use of masks and respirators in healthcare and community settings has been a particularly vexing issue for policymakers.

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) undertook a scientific evidence-based review of the use of masks and respirators in an influenza pandemic to inform relevant guidance following the emergence of pandemic A (H1N1) 2009 influenza. The Department of Health commissioned the HPA to update the review in support of the revision of the United Kingdom (UK) influenza pandemic preparedness strategy.[1] The review was published on-line at: A further update of the evidence base subsequently was performed in January 2011 and described herein.


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