Between COVID, flu and RSV, should you wear a mask every fall and winter?

Between COVID, flu and RSV, should you wear a mask every fall and winter?

An illustration shows four people lined up in colorful clothing with one hand on their hip.  Two are wearing surgical masks and two are not.

Given that cases of COVID, as well as the flu, increase every fall and winter, should you consider seasonal masking? (Illustration: Getty Images)

This season, as temperatures drop, virus infections are on the rise. As we face what medical experts call a tripledemic – the convergence of influenza, RSV, and COVID – you may be wondering how to protect yourself against the disease. But beyond that, given that COVID doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon and flu season returns every fall and winter, should you consider seasonal masking? Here are some things doctors say you should consider.

‘Dangerous’ surges of respiratory viruses

When the pandemic hit in 2020 and strict measures were put in place to help stop the spread of COVID, doctors say all other respiratory viruses disappeared abruptly and almost completely. “We had cut off the normal pathways of respiratory virus transmission,” Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, told Yahoo Life. “Of course they weren’t gone. We didn’t turn them off. Little by little they come back, and they come back with a vengeance.

Dr. Anna Sick-Samuels, assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says the pandemic disruption has created a shift in the seasonal patterns of these viruses. “What’s a little different this year is that the timing of all these viruses overlaps with the first waves of RSV and influenza,” Sick-Samuels told Yahoo Life. “In previous years, we usually saw them more successively. This impact was therefore more widespread.

Although these respiratory viruses are showing up earlier than usual, Doron says the current numbers aren’t that different from years past. “We certainly don’t see more flu than we would normally see at its peak,” she explains. “That being said, if there’s this much flu and RSV in November, it could end up being the worst season we’ve ever seen.”

All of this is happening just as people prepare to spend more time indoors, whether in busy shopping malls and big holiday parties or crowded airports. Some people wonder if it’s time to revisit those pandemic protections, including masking, that have been relaxed across the country.

Given the current surge of respiratory viruses, Doron says she’s not in favor of health authorities “reducing mandates and restrictions right now, masks or whatever — because I think we’re seeing one now. of the most dangerous and unintended consequences of these measures, which are these reactive outbreaks of respiratory viruses.

Do you have to hide every winter?

So does protecting your health automatically mean masking up when cold weather hits and respiratory viruses spike? Not necessarily. Dr. Vandana Madhavan, director of advanced pediatrics at Mass General Brigham in Boston, told Yahoo Life that “this doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision.” She says, “I’ve talked a lot during the pandemic about public health interventions like a dimmer switch, not an on/off switch. But this upward or downward connection need not be at the level of a larger community.

Madhavan says it really depends on what works best for you and your family, as well as your age and health. “Someone might say, ‘We really want to be able to see the grandparents during the holidays. Let’s all wear a mask for a few weeks and really pay attention to the activities we’re doing,” she says. “Masks don’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing, but they’re still a really effective tool.”

However, Doron says not all respiratory viruses are transmitted equally. “A well-fitting, high-quality mask appears to protect against COVID, but it may be less protective against viruses that rely more on the contact mode of transmission.”

For example, although RSV is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, it can also be spread by touching a surface that has the virus on it and then touching your face, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So reinforcing your hand hygiene and avoiding exposure to sick people can be just as, if not more, effective than wearing a mask in this case, Doron says.

In general, healthy lifestyle habits can also help. “There are a lot of basic things that we probably didn’t pay enough attention to throughout the pandemic that still apply here,” Doron says. “Your underlying health really matters a lot. And that’s eating well, exercising, sleeping well, and doing things that lower your stress levels. All of those things are just huge risk factors for disease. severe.

When to take more precautions

However, if you are in a high-risk category, such as immunocompromised or in close contact with someone who is, doctors agree that you should use everything in your toolbox to avoid exposing yourself. to viruses this season. Those most at risk are the elderly, people with heart or lung disease, patients undergoing cancer treatment, and babies under 6 months old.

For parents of very young children who cannot wear a mask, Madhaven says it’s important to be an advocate for your child’s health. “Parents should really feel empowered to ask not just, ‘Oh, is someone sick? But, ‘Have you been around anyone sick lately?’ Because that person who is exposed to someone who is sick might have it very mildly, but then might pass it on to a more vulnerable young child or older adult.

If you still have concerns, Doron suggests talking to your doctor to help you assess your personal risk and determine which protections might be best for you. “A little silver lining to COVID-19 is that people have become more aware. Like, ‘Oh, let’s think about ventilation, let’s think about transmission risks, etc.’ », explains Doron.

Madhavan agrees, saying these are all lessons that also apply to other respiratory viruses. “I think right now everyone understands that we’re all in this together,” she says. “We are all trying to stay healthy, ourselves and our families.”

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