2. Pollution

From the whiff of a cigarette to tailpipe exhaust, a mask can protect you from the harmful effects of ambient air pollution.

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When you inhale polluted air, the soot (or particulate matter) can seep into the bloodstream by way of the lungs and cause serious health problems, according to the World Health Organization. And older adults are among those who are more susceptible to these complications.

“The big killer is actually ischemic heart disease,” or heart problems caused by narrowed heart arteries, says Richard Peltier, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency found that long-term exposure to air pollution accelerates the buildup of calcium in the coronary arteries, which can restrict blood flow to the heart and increase the likelihood of a heart attack. It’s estimated that between 7 million and 9 million premature deaths annually are linked to air pollution. “And most of that is cardiovascular disease [and] heart attacks,” Peltier says.

A mask can help to block some air pollution particles that you might otherwise inhale, which is why people who work with dust, debris and other pollutants often wear them.

Some masks are better than others at keeping pollution particles out, Peltier notes — he recommends an N95.

3. Flu, RSV and other respiratory ailments

COVID-19 isn’t the only respiratory illness that’s making people sick right now.

During winter especially, “many viruses circulate and cause respiratory diseases,” says Elie A. Saade, M.D., system director of medical quality and infection control at University Hospitals in Cleveland.

For example, there have been more than 25 million illnesses, 280,000 hospitalizations and 17,000 deaths from flu so far this season, according to Jan. 27 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And throughout the fall, patients sick with RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, were flooding hospitals throughout the country.

While the viruses that cause these illnesses — flu, RSV and COVID — are different, they all spread in similar ways: by small and large droplets that travel through the air. But high-quality masks, such as an N95 or similar, can help to block these germs that make us sick.

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