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We've seen lots of images lately of people wearing masks to stop the spread of flu germs. U.S. sales have been brisk and manufacturers are ramping up production. But do masks really make a difference? In crowded situations there is evidence that they provide some protection but a few questions remain. Namely, can people manage to put their masks on correctly and can they tolerate them once they've got them on? NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY: Given the spread of swine flu, experts say masks make sense for two groups of people: those who are sick since it keeps them from coughing and sneezing on others and healthcare workers or caregivers who are most likely to come in close contact with infected people. So for the rest of us, here's what I learned this morning when I asked some NPR staffers to volunteer to wear one.

NEAL CARRUTH: I'm not going to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: That's the producer of ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Neal Carruth.

CARRUTH: I will not wear that mask all day.

AUBREY: But in the spirit of helping us understand what it's like to tolerate a very snug-fitting surgical mask that pinches your nose and makes you sound nasally, here's Neil handing off the task to show staffer, Gabe O'Connor.

CARRUTH: This is not written on the board yet, but your assignment for today is to wear this mask. See if you can actually get any work done.

AUBREY: Gabe's reaction?

GABE O'CONNOR: This could be awkward.

AUBREY: As Gabe donned an N95 mask that we picked up in the paint department at a local hardware store, he read the directions. It turns out this is a real deal respirator mask approved by NIOSH, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. It can filter out tiny germs if you use it right.

Ms. URVASHI RANGAN (Technical Expert, Consumer Reports): Putting the mask on properly is really important. You have to make sure that the straps are on securely.

AUBREY: Urvashi Rangan is a technical expert with "Consumer Reports." She says the bottom line is that the mask has to fit almost like a seal and the little piece of metal on the top must be adjusted to the contour of your nose.

Ms. URVASHI RANGAN: You want to make sure as you're wearing it there aren't any gaps anywhere around the perimeter of your mask. If there are it's as good as almost not wearing the mask.

AUBREY: It turns out that this is much easier said than done. Studies showed that when asked to wear a mask 75 percent of people don't put it on or adjust it properly and fewer than 20 percent of people manage to keep their masks on for very long. Gabe O'Connor says he can see why.

O'CONNOR: It's awkward. This mask is really small. It's really, really, really hot and it's like a jungle. It's terrible. Can I take this off?

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: O'Connor says beyond his personal discomfort, the mask makes it tough to communicate.

O'CONNOR: I have to repeat myself. I'm writing a story right now and I'm -I don't want to go to the editor…

AUBREY: …for fear that he sound like the grown-ups in Charlie Brown.

O'CONNOR: You know, wah wah wah wah wah wah wah.

AUBREY: Gabe says on the positive side, if there were a high-risk situation with a critical mass of people ill, he does see how a mask could serve as an incredibly strong social signal to people to keep their distance. He experienced it this morning when he asked a few colleagues to get coffee with him.

O'CONNOR: They were like, um, no I think we're okay. I've just quit coffee in fact.

AUBREY: So you find that this social distancing comes just by putting this thing on.

O'CONNOR: It's pretty organic. Yeah, you don't have to do anything.

AUBREY: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it does not know if masks can prevent the spread of this new H1N1 virus. Experts say it can't hurt to wear one. If nothing else, it keeps you from touching your mouth and nose and the closer you are to an outbreak the more sense it might make.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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