Flu prevention: Do you need to wear a mask?

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Those who haven't gotten the flu yet are taking every possible precaution to keep it that way - getting the flu shot, keeping their hands germ-free, and even wearing face masks out in public.

You'll see them in waiting rooms, airports and grocery stores.

But how much does it really protect you? Is it smart prevention or overreaction? We asked Registered Nurse Nancy Epps with Tampa General Hospital's Employee Health Services.

"It's really easy, it just loops on over your ears," Epps said, putting one on. "As you're breathing, there's some air that goes around. But if [there are] flu particles in the air, most of it's going to get stuck on this mask."

Employees at TGH wear the masks anytime they treat flu patients. "Those particles in the air, this is a good mechanical barrier," Epps explained.

LINK: Amid Tamiflu shortage, Florida Hospital offers free flu shots in Tampa

But for normally healthy people, is the mask really necessary? That depends.

"I think it's more tedious to wear this around all day long than to just be cognizant of not touching your face and washing your hands frequently," Epps said. "People that do have high risk, their doctors usually tell them if you're in a closed confined space with people who are coughing, then, you are going to want to use a mask."

High-risk groups include people over age 65 and under age 5, those with serious cardiac issues, chronic medical conditions, and compromised immune systems.

At Palma Ceia Health Mart Pharmacy, the main item flying off shelves these days is Tamiflu. "I ordered ten of these to come in for today and I think we are down to four," said Pharmacist Brad Esposito around 4 p.m.
Esposito, who just got over the flu himself, has plenty of masks on hand for people worried about getting sick.

"It's not a bad idea," he said. "It's just another preventative measure you can take, going out in public, getting on an airplane, anything where you can potentially be exposed to the flu, it's not a bad choice."

Cathleen Corgan picked hers up Tuesday afternoon.

"Even though I've gotten the flu shot, I'm really concerned about getting the flu," Corgan said "I thought, I'll put this on if I have contact with people, maybe in a grocery store, or if someone around me is sneezing, or if my son starts to get sick. I just don't want to take a chance this year."

The bottom line appears to be if you're actively sick or a high-risk patient, it's a good idea to wear a mask. If you're healthy and got the flu shot, it's up to you.