Do physical measures such as hand-washing or wearing masks stop or slow down the spread of respiratory viruses?

What are respiratory viruses?

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.

How do respiratory viruses spread?

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 have landed. Respiratory viruses can spread quickly through a community, through populations and countries (causing epidemics), and around the world (causing pandemics).

How can we stop the spread of respiratory viruses?

Physical measures to try to stop 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).

Why we did this Cochrane Review

We wanted to find out whether physical measures stop or slow the spread of respiratory viruses.

What did we do?

We searched for studies that looked at physical measures to stop people catching 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.

Search date: This is an update of a review first published in 2007. We included evidence published up to 1 April 2020.

What we found

We identified 67 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, and epidemic influenza seasons up to 2016. No studies were conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. We identified six ongoing, unpublished studies; three of them evaluate masks in COVID-19.

One study looked at quarantine, and none eye protection, 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).

What are the results of the review?

Medical or surgical masks

Seven studies took place in the community, and two studies in healthcare workers. Compared with wearing no mask, wearing a mask may make little to no difference in how many people caught a flu-like illness (9 studies; 3507 people); and probably makes no difference in how many people have flu confirmed by a laboratory test (6 studies; 3005 people). Unwanted effects were rarely reported, but included discomfort.

N95/P2 respirators

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.

Hand hygiene

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 (16 studies; 61,372 people). Few studies measured unwanted effects; skin irritation in people using hand sanitiser was mentioned.

How reliable are these results?

Our confidence in these results is generally low 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.

Key messages

We are uncertain whether wearing masks or N95/P2 respirators helps to slow the spread of respiratory viruses.

Hand hygiene programmes may help to slow the spread of respiratory viruses.

Authors' conclusions: 

The high risk of bias in the trials, variation in outcome measurement, and relatively low compliance with the interventions during the studies hamper drawing firm conclusions and generalising the findings to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

There is uncertainty about the effects of face masks. The low-moderate certainty of the evidence means our confidence in the effect estimate is limited, and that the true effect may be different from the observed estimate of the effect. The pooled results of randomised trials did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infection with the use of medical/surgical masks during seasonal influenza. There were no clear differences between the use of medical/surgical masks compared with N95/P2 respirators in healthcare workers when used in routine care to reduce respiratory viral infection. Hand hygiene is likely to modestly reduce the burden of respiratory illness. Harms associated with physical interventions were under-investigated.

There is a need for large, well-designed RCTs addressing the effectiveness of many of these interventions in multiple settings and populations, especially in those most at risk of ARIs. 

Read the full abstract...

Viral epidemics or pandemics of acute respiratory infections (ARIs) pose a global threat. Examples are influenza (H1N1) caused by the H1N1pdm09 virus in 2009, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, and coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by SARS-CoV-2 in 2019. Antiviral drugs and vaccines may be insufficient to prevent their spread. This is an update of a Cochrane Review published in 2007, 2009, 2010, and 2011. The evidence summarised in this review does not include results from studies from the current COVID-19 pandemic.


To assess the effectiveness of physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of acute respiratory viruses.

Search strategy: 

We searched CENTRAL, PubMed, Embase, CINAHL on 1 April 2020. We searched, and the WHO ICTRP on 16 March 2020. We conducted a backwards and forwards citation analysis on the newly included studies.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) and cluster-RCTs of trials investigating physical interventions (screening at entry ports, isolation, quarantine, physical distancing, personal protection, hand hygiene, face masks, and gargling) to prevent respiratory virus transmission. In previous versions of this review we also included observational studies. However, for this update, there were sufficient RCTs to address our study aims.  

Data collection and analysis: 

We used standard methodological procedures expected by Cochrane. We used GRADE to assess the certainty of the evidence. Three pairs of review authors independently extracted data using a standard template applied in previous versions of this review, but which was revised to reflect our focus on RCTs and cluster-RCTs for this update. We did not contact trialists for missing data due to the urgency in completing the review. We extracted data on adverse events (harms) associated with the interventions.

Main results: 

We included 44 new RCTs and cluster-RCTs in this update, bringing the total number of randomised trials to 67. There were no included studies conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Six ongoing studies were identified, of which three evaluating masks are being conducted concurrent with the COVID pandemic, and one is completed.

Many studies were conducted during non-epidemic influenza periods, but several studies were conducted during the global H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, and others in epidemic influenza seasons up to 2016. Thus, studies were conducted in the context of lower respiratory viral circulation and transmission compared to COVID-19. The included studies were conducted in heterogeneous settings, ranging from suburban schools to hospital wards in high-income countries; crowded inner city settings in low-income countries; and an immigrant neighbourhood in a high-income country. Compliance with interventions was low in many studies.

The risk of bias for the RCTs and cluster-RCTs was mostly high or unclear.

Medical/surgical masks compared to no masks

We included nine trials (of which eight were cluster-RCTs) comparing medical/surgical masks versus no masks to prevent the spread of viral respiratory illness (two trials with healthcare workers and seven in the community). There is low certainty evidence from nine trials (3507 participants) that wearing a mask may make little or no difference to the outcome of influenza-like illness (ILI) compared to not wearing a mask (risk ratio (RR) 0.99, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.82 to 1.18. There is moderate certainty evidence that wearing a mask probably makes little or no difference to the outcome of laboratory-confirmed influenza compared to not wearing a mask (RR 0.91, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.26; 6 trials; 3005 participants). Harms were rarely measured and poorly reported. Two studies during COVID-19 plan to recruit a total of 72,000 people. One evaluates medical/surgical masks (N = 6000) (published Annals of Internal Medicine, 18 Nov 2020), and one evaluates cloth masks (N = 66,000).

N95/P2 respirators compared to medical/surgical masks

We pooled trials comparing N95/P2 respirators with medical/surgical masks (four in healthcare settings and one in a household setting). There is uncertainty over the effects of N95/P2 respirators when compared with medical/surgical masks on the outcomes of clinical respiratory illness (RR 0.70, 95% CI 0.45 to 1.10; very low-certainty evidence; 3 trials; 7779 participants) and ILI (RR 0.82, 95% CI 0.66 to 1.03; low-certainty evidence; 5 trials; 8407 participants). The evidence is limited by imprecision and heterogeneity for these subjective outcomes. The use of a N95/P2 respirator compared to a medical/surgical mask probably makes little or no difference for the objective and more precise outcome of laboratory-confirmed influenza infection (RR 1.10, 95% CI 0.90 to 1.34; moderate-certainty evidence; 5 trials; 8407 participants). Restricting the pooling to healthcare workers made no difference to the overall findings. Harms were poorly measured and reported, but discomfort wearing medical/surgical masks or N95/P2 respirators was mentioned in several studies. One ongoing study recruiting 576 people compares N95/P2 respirators with medical surgical masks for healthcare workers during COVID-19.

Hand hygiene compared to control

Settings included schools, childcare centres, homes, and offices. In a comparison of hand hygiene interventions with control (no intervention), there was a 16% relative reduction in the number of people with ARIs in the hand hygiene group (RR 0.84, 95% CI 0.82 to 0.86; 7 trials; 44,129 participants; moderate-certainty evidence), suggesting a probable benefit. When considering the more strictly defined outcomes of ILI and laboratory-confirmed influenza, the estimates of effect for ILI (RR 0.98, 95% CI 0.85 to 1.13; 10 trials; 32,641 participants; low-certainty evidence) and laboratory-confirmed influenza (RR 0.91, 95% CI 0.63 to 1.30; 8 trials; 8332 participants; low-certainty evidence) suggest the intervention made little or no difference. We pooled all 16 trials (61,372 participants) for the composite outcome of ARI or ILI or influenza, with each study only contributing once and the most comprehensive outcome reported. The pooled data showed that hand hygiene may offer a benefit with an 11% relative reduction of respiratory illness (RR 0.89, 95% CI 0.84 to 0.95; low-certainty evidence), but with high heterogeneity. Few trials measured and reported harms.

There are two ongoing studies of handwashing interventions in 395 children outside of COVID-19.

We identified one RCT on quarantine/physical distancing. Company employees in Japan were asked to stay at home if household members had ILI symptoms. Overall fewer people in the intervention group contracted influenza compared with workers in the control group (2.75% versus 3.18%; hazard ratio 0.80, 95% CI 0.66 to 0.97). However, those who stayed at home with their infected family members were 2.17 times more likely to be infected.

We found no RCTs on eye protection, gowns and gloves, or screening at entry ports.