Do physical measures such as hand‐washing or wearing masks stop or slow down the spread of respiratory viruses?
We are uncertain whether wearing masks or N95/P2 respirators helps to slow the spread of respiratory viruses based on the studies we assessed.
Hand hygiene programmes may help to slow the spread of respiratory viruses.
How do respiratory viruses spread?
Respiratory viruses are viruses that infect the cells in your airways: nose, throat, and lungs. These infections can cause serious problems and affect normal breathing. They can cause flu (influenza), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), and COVID‐19.
People infected with a respiratory virus spread virus particles into the air when they cough or sneeze. Other people become infected if they come into contact with these virus particles in the air or on surfaces on which they land. Respiratory viruses can spread quickly through a community, through populations and countries (causing epidemics), and around the world (causing pandemics).
Physical measures to try to prevent respiratory viruses spreading between people include:
· washing hands often;
· not touching your eyes, nose, or mouth;
· sneezing or coughing into your elbow;
· wiping surfaces with disinfectant;
· wearing masks, eye protection, gloves, and protective gowns;
· avoiding contact with other people (isolation or quarantine);
· keeping a certain distance away from other people (distancing); and
· examining people entering a country for signs of infection (screening).
What did we want to find out?
We wanted to find out whether physical measures stop or slow the spread of respiratory viruses from well‐controlled studies in which one intervention is compared to another, known as randomised controlled trials.
What did we do?
We searched for randomised controlled studies that looked at physical measures to stop people acquiring a respiratory virus infection.
We were interested in how many people in the studies caught a respiratory virus infection, and whether the physical measures had any unwanted effects.
What did we find?
We identified 78 relevant studies. They took place in low‐, middle‐, and high‐income countries worldwide: in hospitals, schools, homes, offices, childcare centres, and communities during non‐epidemic influenza periods, the global H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, epidemic influenza seasons up to 2016, and during the COVID‐19 pandemic. We identified five ongoing, unpublished studies; two of them evaluate masks in COVID‐19. Five trials were funded by government and pharmaceutical companies, and nine trials were funded by pharmaceutical companies.
No studies looked at face shields, gowns and gloves, or screening people when they entered a country.
We assessed the effects of:
· medical or surgical masks;
· N95/P2 respirators (close‐fitting masks that filter the air breathed in, more commonly used by healthcare workers than the general public); and
· hand hygiene (hand‐washing and using hand sanitiser).
We obtained the following results:
Medical or surgical masks
Ten studies took place in the community, and two studies in healthcare workers. Compared with wearing no mask in the community studies only, wearing a mask may make little to no difference in how many people caught a flu‐like illness/COVID‐like illness (9 studies; 276,917 people); and probably makes little or no difference in how many people have flu/COVID confirmed by a laboratory test (6 studies; 13,919 people). Unwanted effects were rarely reported; discomfort was mentioned.
Four studies were in healthcare workers, and one small study was in the community. Compared with wearing medical or surgical masks, wearing N95/P2 respirators probably makes little to no difference in how many people have confirmed flu (5 studies; 8407 people); and may make little to no difference in how many people catch a flu‐like illness (5 studies; 8407 people), or respiratory illness (3 studies; 7799 people). Unwanted effects were not well‐reported; discomfort was mentioned.
Following a hand hygiene programme may reduce the number of people who catch a respiratory or flu‐like illness, or have confirmed flu, compared with people not following such a programme (19 studies; 71,210 people), although this effect was not confirmed as statistically significant reduction when ILI and laboratory‐confirmed ILI were analysed separately. Few studies measured unwanted effects; skin irritation in people using hand sanitiser was mentioned.
What are the limitations of the evidence?
Our confidence in these results is generally low to moderate for the subjective outcomes related to respiratory illness, but moderate for the more precisely defined laboratory‐confirmed respiratory virus infection, related to masks and N95/P2 respirators. The results might change when further evidence becomes available. Relatively low numbers of people followed the guidance about wearing masks or about hand hygiene, which may have affected the results of the studies.
How up to date is this evidence?
We included evidence published up to October 2022.