Don’t Feel Like Getting Sick This Winter? Here’s One Weird Trick

There’s this cool thing that can really help keep you from getting the flu, a cold, or even COVID! It’s called a mask.

Liz Ruark
82. Don’t Feel Like Getting Sick This Winter? Here’s One Weird Trick

Folks, we know you don’t want to wear a mask. It fogs your glasses. It makes your ears hurt after a while. It’s harder for people to understand you. But you know what? Masks work. Or at least, good ones do. And here’s a secret: You don’t have to wear them all the time to decrease your risk — just when it matters. Here’s what you need to know.

It’s Time to Let the Cloth Masks Go

But we love our cloth masks! We have ones with cute patterns and sports logos and memes printed across the front. We match them to our outfits.

The thing is, they don’t work that well. Cloth masks, even with multiple layers, tend to be up to about 30% effective at filtering out virus particles. While that’s a whole lot better than nothing, it’s not great. Given that Omicron is four times as easy to catch as the original version of the virus, it’s time to kiss the cute cloth masks goodbye.

COVID-19 and the Flu are Airborne

SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) spreads mostly by riding on aerosols: microscopic bits of water that can travel a heck of a lot farther than six feet. The flu can be spread by aerosols, too. We breathe out these tiny particles whenever we breathe, talk, or laugh. And they can hang out in the air for a long time in places that don’t have lots of fresh air. (What kinds of places? Think bars; cramped city grocery stores; offices and classrooms with outdated HVAC systems and/or windows that don’t open). The better your mask, the more able it is to protect you from this stuff.

Good Masks Aren’t Hard to Find

So what counts as a “high quality” mask? There are three options:

  • N95: This is the most protective mask. Blocks 95% of virus particles.

  • KN95/KF94: Not quite as protective, but still, at roughly 85% effective, a huge improvement over cloth masks.

  • Level 3 surgical: This is the most effective version of the little blue disposable mask. They’re about 70% effective as long as they fit well. Kid-sized versions of these can be a good choice for little ones whose faces are too small for even the smallest KN95s.

The federal government is providing free N95 masks, which are available at local pharmacies. There are a lot of different versions, so if you’re not sure how to use the type your pharmacy provides, this CDC site can help you out.

Fit Matters

People! There is NO POINT in wearing a well-made KN95 mask that has big gaps around the nose and cheeks. Your mask should fit snugly on your face. N95 and KN95 masks come in different sizes, and — just like shoes and jeans – some brands tend to run large, while others run small. I had to try a couple of different versions of KN95s before I found one that worked on my narrow face — I gave the masks that were too big to a friend of mine whose aristocratic nose required something a little more roomy. If you prefer to wear a surgical mask, there’s an easy trick to get rid of the gaps that often pooch out at the sides (see graphic below).

82. Don’t Feel Like Getting Sick This Winter? Here’s One Weird Trick

Wear Them When It Matters

So when do you need to wear a mask? When there are a lot of viruses around. You can find out if there’s a lot of flu in your state by looking at the CDC’s FluView map. For COVID, things are a little trickier these days, because cases aren’t being reported as well as they were during the height of the pandemic. Your best bet is to look at local wastewater test results. Depending on where you live, you can find that information at one of the following sites: 

If a lot of people are sick in your neck of the woods, mask up whenever you’re in a crowd. Your lungs will thank you.