Please cite this paper as: bin-Reza et al. (2012) The use of masks and respirators to prevent transmission of influenza: a systematic review of the scientific evidence. Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses 6(4), 257–267.
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.