Will a face mask keep you safe from viruses on a plane?

May 12, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post is updated with additional information as guidance from the U.S. CDC, the scientific community and travel providers evolves. 

The coronavirus is omnipresent on everyone’s mind. Life as we know it has been flipped upside down as we all try to mitigate the spread of the deadly disease.

The virus that causes COVID-19 has now spread around the world. It 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.

The impact, though, far exceeds the SARS outbreak with nearly 3.5 million cases confirmed worldwide.

Visit TPG’s guide to all coronavirus news and updates

At this time, experts warn against all nonessential travel anywhere in the world in an effort to flatten the curve. The U.K.’s  FCO still advises against all non-essential travel.

If you do have to travel, there are many variables you can’t control while in the air — such as who is assigned to sit near you and whether he or she is carrying some sort of communicable germ — but you’re not defenceless. We reached out via email to Wai Haung Yu, Ph.D., a research scientist and frequent traveller, to get the scoop on whether or not face masks 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 travellers need to know about coronavirus?

The virus has a long latency period (between one and 14 days or even longer) between exposure and when the symptoms begin to appear, Dr Yu explained, and 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 are rarer.

Also, asymptomatic people can transmit the virus. Unlike the original SARS virus, though, this one can start in the back of the throat and work its way down — in fact, it may be a reason why people have a sore throat as a symptom, according to Dr Yu. Since the virus can be found there, it’s more likely to be released when someone speaks or coughs.

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' KLM are halting or reducing flights to China as the country struggles to contain the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus, which death toll soared to 304 with the first fatality outside the country reported in the Philippines. (Photo by Evert ELZINGA / ANP / AFP) / Netherlands OUT (Photo by EVERT ELZINGA/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by EVERT ELZINGA/ANP/AFP via Getty Images)

Know there may be risk factors that could determine if you’re at a greater risk of contracting the disease and how it progresses if you do.

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.

Should you wear a face mask on flights?

Yes, you’re allowed to wear a face mask in flight — and many airlines and government bodies have even made this a requirement.

In light of coronavirus concerns, Canada now requires travellers to wear masks while travelling. The same regulation has not been adopted in the U.S. of U.K. just yet, but some airlines are requiring it.

A number of U.S. carriers now require that passengers wear masks. In Europe and beyond, Air France, KLM, Emirates, Ryanair, Lufthansa and more have all said that passengers will be required to wear masks when flights resume.

The TSA also recently made changes to allow U.S. travellers to wear masks while waiting in line for security screening.

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 6 to 8 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.

Dr Yu added that surgical face masks are able to reduce transmission in a controlled environment, leading to the suggestion that the virus could be “blocked” by the mask. The reality is that the mask can potentially catch the virus (in a water droplet) in the fabric.

Researchers found the virus can remain in the air longer than expected, Dr Yu added. In a controlled environment, the virus was still active in liquid droplets after a few hours, though this may not be the case in most real-life environments.

Health experts previously recommended that masks should be used to capture the virus by people who were contagious. The new assumption, however, is that everyone could be contagious but unaware — so wearing a mask could prevent spread and transmission, Dr Yu said. The use of cloth as a barrier is less known, Dr Yu added, but the principles apply that if the droplet gets caught, it has less of a chance of getting in.

In terms of travelling, 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.

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, but those are the gold standard for medical professionals.

However, there’s a critical shortage of N95 respirators and other medical-grade face masks, so they should be reserve for medical professionals fighting on the front lines. Experts say the average citizen does not need one 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 as protected. Additionally, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (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.

The CDC recently shifted its stance and now recommends that masks be used by the general public. In fact, several states have now made some type of face mask mandatory in public including Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

The U.K. now encourages those in public to wear a face mask.

As a result, many people have started to get creative and have been using cloth, bandannas and even travel eye shades as masks. Dr Yu says that while cloth masks may not hurt, you’ll want to keep these general rules in mind: Wash your hands before putting one on, avoid touching the mask and the elastic part and wash your hands after removing the mask.

In addition, if you’re reusing the mask, remember to wash it with hot, soapy water. Be sure to wash your hands after, as well.

If you decide to make one yourself, use two sheets sewn together with different fabrics so you know which side faces your mouth and which side is out. Wash it as frequently as possible, too. We’ve also seen people using airline eye shades as face masks. Either way, fit is incredibly important.

Where to buy face masks

At the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, many retailers completely sold out of masks. But many new companies are now learning how to produce masks and continuously restocking. So, if you don’t have the supplies to make your own mask, here’s a roundup of a few places where you can buy one:

Photo courtesy of Alice Cox
(Photo courtesy of Alice Cox)

Alice Cox

These face masks come in bespoke designs and in a variety of sizes. Prices range from £10 to £15.

Wawwa

This 100% organic cotton mask with elastic loops is washable and comes in two colours. You can buy one for £12.

Plümo

Plümo is making masks (£10 each) with four layers of organic linen and elastic ear loops. The masks are also washable and reusable, and with every sale, it’s donating to the ‘Masks 4 Heroes’ campaign.

Contrado

Buy a four-pack for £20. Choose whether you want quilted (thick three ply) or Olympia airflow (lightweight). All profits are donated.

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 table and anything else you will touch during the flight.

If you’re concerned about getting the virus while travelling, ensure you’re stocked up on antiseptics and cleaning agents, as well as antifever medication should you contract something. To reiterate, the FCO recommends that you should only travel right now for urgent and essential reasons.

Here are TPG’s tips for sanitizing your aeroplane 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 travelling. (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 sanitiser or wash your hands with 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 travelling during the deadly coronavirus outbreak

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

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. While the initial recommendations were that a face mask was not needed by the general public when in public or flying, those recommendations have shifted. Though it’s too soon to say how long these policies will remain in effect, many airlines are now requiring that all travellers wear a face mask during the air travel process.

If you have to travel and are ill (whether you know it or not), wearing a mask may help protect the people around you from catching whatever it is you have — and there’s also a chance it may keep you a bit safer, too.

Additional reporting by Liz Hund.

Featured photo by Rapeepong Puttakumwong/Getty Images.

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