Do anti-Covid masks protect against pollen?

As pollen counts rise in France, a study suggests anti-Covid masks could help protect allergy sufferers – but not all masks offer the same effect, a doctor has warned.

The air quality network the National Aerobiological Surveillance Network (RNSA) warned on Friday May 6 that “pollen concentrations are increasing throughout the territory, and will be increasingly strong in the coming days”.

Map: Pollens.fr / Screenshot

The Pollens.fr site offers updates on the pollen risk throughout the territory (update: May 6)

The Ministry of Health estimates that 30% of French people suffer from pollen allergies, with some being more allergic to grass pollen, which occurs between the end of April and June, and others more sensitive to tree pollen, which tends to arrive earlier, between March and April.

But people having got into the habit of wearing a mask outside for the past two years because of the Covid, the question arose: does wearing an anti-Covid mask also protect against allergies?

Answer: Yes and no.

Dr Annick Barbaud, head of the dermatology and allergy department at the Tenon hospital, in the 20th arrondissement in Paris, tells Le Figaro: “We found during the pandemic years that people who went out with masks had less [allergy] issues.”

This was especially true for people with sensitivity around the nose and eyes. On the other hand, the asthmatics still suffered.

However, as pollen is inhaled, the level of protection offered depends on the mask worn. Unsurprisingly, FFP2 masks offer more protection than cotton, homemade, or surgical-style masks.

A German July 2021 study found that people with pollen allergies suffered fewer reactions when they wore a medical mask and an FFP2 mask.

Dr Barbaud explained why FFP2 masks are probably better filters, saying: “If a mask is able to filter a virus, it will be for a pollen, because the pollen [particles are] bigger.”

Cloth face masks that are washed often may also offer some protection, the German study showed, particularly when it comes to allergic reactions to the nose and eyes. Cloth masks that are not washed often offered barely any protection, he found.

Existing advice for reducing allergic reactions is still valid. This includes:

  • Resumption of over-the-counter antihistamines
  • Wash your face regularly
  • Wash or rinse your hair every night before bed
  • Avoid laundry hanging outside
  • Open windows in the morning or evening, not during the hottest part of the day

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