Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses (Cochrane library)



Excerpts from:

Cochrane Library

Physical interventions to interrupt or reduce the spread of respiratory viruses

Authors’ declarations of interest

Version published: 30 January 2023 Version history


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

Key messages
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.


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 We identified five ongoing, unpublished studies; two of them evaluate masks in COVID‐19.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.

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 (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.

Authors’ conclusions

The high risk of bias in the trials, variation in outcome measurement, and relatively low adherence with the interventions during the studies hampers drawing firm conclusions. There were additional RCTs during the pandemic related to physical interventions but a relative paucity given the importance of the question of masking and its relative effectiveness and the concomitant measures of mask adherence which would be highly relevant to the measurement of effectiveness, especially in the elderly and in young children.

There is uncertainty about the effects of face masks. The low to moderate certainty of 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 RCTs did not show a clear reduction in respiratory viral infection with the use of medical/surgical masks. 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, and although this effect was also present when ILI and laboratory‐confirmed influenza were analysed separately, it was not found to be a significant difference for the latter two outcomes. 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, as well as the impact of adherence on effectiveness, especially in those most at risk of ARIs.


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