As COVID, flu, and other illnesses spread, some consider masking up.
Note: Information in this article was accurate at the time of original publication. Because information about COVID-19 changes rapidly, we encourage you to visit the websites of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and your state and local government.
[Originally published: July 28, 2021. Updated: Dec. 15, 2022]
Is it just your imagination—or are more people wearing masks again? Respiratory viruses have been sweeping across the country and filling some hospitals to capacity, and experts are recommending everyone take heightened precautions. Masks can be a tool for preventing not only COVID-19 but other illnesses that spread when someone near you coughs or sneezes, spewing infectious droplets into the air.
There is no new national mandate requiring all Americans to wear masks. But in December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) encouraged people to wear them to help slow the latest spread not only of COVID-19 but also of respiratory illnesses, such as flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which together had raised concerns that there could be a “tripledemic.” By mid-month, some cities and counties, including New York City, were advising wearing masks again in indoor public spaces and crowded outdoor settings.
So yes, depending on where you live, you may see more people wearing masks. Here we answer three questions about putting on your mask again.
You might still wear a mask to protect yourself during cold and flu season
Masks have been a valuable preventive tool throughout the pandemic, and some health experts have pointed out that COVID-19 is not the only reason to hold onto them.
Cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common respiratory virus that can be serious in children, immunocompromised people, and older adults, ticked upwards in some places in the U.S. last year. “It’s problematic because we are still in the COVID-19 mindset, so anyone who is sneezing or has a runny nose may think they need to get tested for COVID-19,” said Dr. Shenoi at the time. “It’s particularly hard for parents. Under normal circumstances—before COVID-19—kids would have a sniffle going on from November to March, and we knew to expect that.”
Karen Jubanyik, MD, a Yale Medicine emergency medicine specialist, urges adults to consider wearing masks during flu season if they are at risk for or interact with people who are vulnerable to complications from the flu. “Because the flu hits you all of a sudden—you may feel fine even though you are potentially contagious, then all of a sudden you have a fever of 102,” she says.
What is the current CDC guidance on masks?
The CDC’s recommendations for wearing a mask have revolved around the prevention of COVID-19. In 2022, when deaths from COVID-19 were on the decline, the CDC loosened its mask guidelines, which included universal masking in schools. It also issued new recommendations for taking precautions based on virus activity in a given geographic location. This specific guidance is determined based on such data as hospital admissions and the number of new COVID-19 cases in the area. You can check the risk level where you live (or may be traveling to) using a tool on the CDC website. Based on the results, you can follow their advice:
- At all COVID-19 community levels: Choose to mask at any time. Masks are recommended in indoor public transportation settings and may be required in other places by local or state authorities.
- Medium or high: If you are at high risk for getting very sick, wear a high-quality mask or respirator. If you have household or social contact with someone at high risk of getting very sick, consider self-testing to detect infection before contact and consider wearing a mask when indoors with them.
- High: Wear a high-quality mask or respirator. If you are at high risk for getting very sick, consider avoiding non-essential indoor activities in public where you could be exposed.
These guidelines are not set in stone and could change. “There is still a lot we don’t know, especially as the new variants continue to emerge,” says pediatric infectious diseases specialist Carlos Oliveira, MD, PhD.
The CDC provides specifics on the types of masks and respirators that can be used to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. They specified that some types of masks and respirators, such as N95s and KN95s, provide more protection than others, but advised wearing the most protective mask that fits well and that you will wear consistently.
Wherever you live, the CDC also recommends staying up to date with your COVID-19 vaccines and getting tested if you have symptoms.
2. Can a mask help with respiratory viruses like flu?
There is research showing that masks can help protect against flu, including a study in Hong Kong in 2020 that found surgical masks lowered the particles spewed into the air by people infected with flu or COVID-19.
Karen Jubanyik, MD, a Yale Medicine emergency medicine specialist, urged adults to consider wearing masks during flu season even before the COVID-19 pandemic, if they were at risk for or interacted with people who are vulnerable to complications from flu. “Because the flu hits you all of a sudden—you may feel fine even though you are potentially contagious, then all of a sudden you have a fever of 102,” she says. People at risk for flu complications are those 65 years and older, people of any age with certain chronic medical conditions, pregnant people, and young children.
As more people have gotten sick, experts have recommended masks to protect against other respiratory diseases that are circulating. RSV is another common respiratory virus that also spreads through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. RSV cases ticked upward in the last few months, although by December, it was declining. But there are still new infections occurring, and RSV can be serious in children, immunocompromised people, and older adults.
3. Can I still make a personal choice about masks?
Anyone should feel free to wear a mask if they want to, whatever the situation is in their community, when they are inside grocery stores, movie theaters, or other public places, as well as in outdoor public places like parks, the CDC says.
In an interview with NPR in December, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said, “You don’t need to wait for the CDC’s recommendation, certainly, to wear a mask.”
Some people in the U.S. did not wear face masks to prevent COVID-19 infections at the height of the pandemic, and mask-wearing has been a topic of debate among some Americans; however, masks are part of the culture in some Asian countries, where people wear them to protect from flu and other circulating viruses. The habit took hold after those countries were hit hard by severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which led to more than 8,000 infections and almost 800 deaths in 2002-2003.
“I’m not sure it has sunk in how interconnected we are—that what one person does affects the next person, affects the neighborhood, affects two people down the chain—and all that can have consequences,” says infectious diseases specialist Sheela Shenoi, MD, MPH.
At the same time, maybe COVID-19 has led some Americans to think about masks in a new way, Dr. Shenoi adds. “Now that we’ve lived through this, I think masks are much more familiar to us. We know how easy it is—how straightforward it is—to wear a mask. We’ve learned that this is doable.”
Information provided in Yale Medicine articles is for general informational purposes only. No content in the articles should ever be used as a substitute for medical advice from your doctor or another qualified clinician. Always seek the individual advice of your health care provider with any questions you have regarding a medical condition.