Respiratory infectious diseases: How to reduce the spread with personal protective measures

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Why personal protective measures are important

Personal protective measures are actions you can take to reduce your risk of getting or spreading respiratory infectious diseases, such as:

These actions are also known as public health measures that can be used by individuals.

Personal protective measures work by breaking the chain of infection. This means stopping viruses and bacteria from spreading to an uninfected person through:

These measures have always been an important part of preventing illness. They will continue to be important to help prevent the spread of respiratory infectious diseases and can be used beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

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How respiratory infectious diseases spread

Respiratory infectious diseases can spread in different ways, including from:

Many respiratory infectious diseases spread through a combination of both, so it's best to use more than one personal protective measure at a time.

Person-to-person spread

A person who is infected releases infectious respiratory particles in a range of sizes into the air. This can happen when they:

A person who is infected may also have infectious respiratory secretions, like saliva or mucus.

You may become infected with a respiratory infectious disease if:

Spread through contact with contaminated surfaces or objects

Surfaces and objects may become contaminated with infectious particles or secretions after being touched, or coughed or sneezed on by a person who is infected. High-touch surfaces and objects are more likely to be contaminated, including:

You can become infected if you touch a contaminated surface or object, and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth before you clean your hands.

Who is at risk

Some people are at a greater risk of serious complications from respiratory infectious diseases than others, including:

Depending on the disease, there may be other groups who are at greater risk of serious complications from respiratory infections.

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Why getting vaccinated is important

Vaccination is one of the most important ways to protect you and your loved ones from becoming infected or developing serious complications. Vaccines can help prevent the spread of disease, which helps protect people who can't get vaccinated, like:

Some vaccines offer life-long protection, while others require annual vaccination or booster doses to continue providing protection throughout your life.

Vaccination schedules can vary, depending on which province or territory you live in. Talk to a health care provider or your local public health unit for more information about vaccines.

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What personal protective measures to use

Stay home when you're sick

Staying at home and limiting contact with others when you're sick is one of the best ways to prevent spreading illness in your community. This helps protect people who are at greater risk of severe complications from respiratory infections.

If you share spaces with others, even while at home, you can reduce the risk of spreading respiratory illnesses by combining different personal protective measures.

Staying home when sick is important, but you should still seek medical attention if you need it. Tell your health care provider about your symptoms ahead of time and wear a mask when you seek care if you're able to.

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Wear a well-fitting respirator or mask

Masks are an effective measure that help provide protection against respiratory infectious diseases.

Respirators and masks are most effective when:

They act as a barrier and can filter out respiratory particles. This can help limit the spread of disease by reducing the amount of infectious respiratory particles you breathe in. This helps protect you from getting infected or sick.

Masks also work by containing infectious respiratory particles you produce if you're sick, even if you don't have symptoms. This helps prevent you from spreading infection to others.

You should choose the best quality and best fitting respirator or mask available to you.

Non-medical masks can help prevent the spread of respiratory infectious diseases, but respirators and medical masks provide better protection.

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When to wear a mask

Wear a mask anytime to help protect yourself and others from getting and spreading infectious respiratory diseases. This contributes to a community effort to help keep everyone safe.

The following situations are times when it's especially important to wear a mask.

If you're sick

You should wear a mask if you need to be around other people and have even mild respiratory symptoms, like a cough or sore throat. When possible, you should also stay at home until you no longer have symptoms.

If you must enter a public setting, wear a mask to help protect those around you and your community from getting sick. We can all help contribute to routine masking in Canada.


In Canada, respiratory infectious diseases usually increase in fall and winter. Choosing to wear a mask in public indoor settings can reduce your risk of getting or spreading a respiratory illness in these months.

Your local public health unit may also recommend masking during certain seasons depending on the circulation of viruses in your community.

Setting and event characteristics

The risk of respiratory infectious disease transmission may depend on setting characteristics, such as:

  • size
  • layout
  • ventilation
  • how crowded it is
  • the length of time spent in the setting

These factors may influence your decision to wear a mask.

Settings where the risk of transmission is increased include those that:

  • are small
  • are crowded
  • have poor ventilation
  • have people visiting for longer periods of time

The risk of transmission is even greater when a setting has many of these characteristics.

Events or activities that bring together a large number of people, including those who have travelled from different areas, may also increase the risk of transmission. This could include transportation settings like:

  • trains
  • buses
  • subways
  • airplanes
  • airports or train stations

It also includes large indoor events like:

  • concerts
  • conferences
  • indoor sporting events

There are certain settings where there's a higher risk of a respiratory infectious disease outbreak. For example, in group living settings, such as:

  • shelters
  • group homes
  • retirement homes
  • student residences
  • correctional facilities

In many of these settings, people may also be at higher risk of serious complications from respiratory infections.

Personal risk factors

Some people are at greater risk of severe disease or serious complications from respiratory infectious diseases. This may include:

  • older persons
  • young children
  • people who are pregnant
  • people who are immunocompromised
  • people who have other medical conditions

It may influence your decision to wear a mask in certain situations if:

  • you spend a lot of time with others who are at greater risk
  • you're at risk of more severe complications from a respiratory infection

Improve indoor ventilation

Good ventilation exchanges indoor air for outdoor air. This helps reduce the buildup of infectious respiratory particles in indoor air. Opening windows or doors regularly, even for a few minutes at a time, creates a cross-breeze and can improve natural ventilation.

If your indoor space has vents in the ceiling, walls or floor, then it probably uses a central heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Ensuring this system has clean, well-maintained air filters can help reduce the levels of infectious respiratory particles indoors.

Bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans that vent outside can also help remove potentially contaminated air.

Air filtration can also help by removing infectious respiratory particles, smoke, dust and pollen from the air. An example of an air filtration system is a portable air purifier with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.

When possible, gather outdoors to help reduce the risk of transmission of respiratory infectious diseases. Fresh, clean outdoor air allows infectious particles to disperse and not build up. Outdoor settings also give people more space to spread out.

Although improving indoor ventilation of certain spaces isn't always in your control, there are other ways to improve ventilation in your setting. You can refer to the following resources or contact your ventilation system professional for advice.

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Practise hand hygiene

Hand hygiene means:

This helps reduce the spread of respiratory infectious diseases by removing or killing germs on your hands.

If your hands are visibly dirty, you should wash them with soap and water instead of using hand sanitizer.

Some examples of when you should clean your hands include:

Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unclean hands to prevent germs from entering your body.

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Cover your coughs and sneezes

You can help reduce the spread of respiratory particles when you cough or sneeze by following these steps.

  1. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your elbow, not your hand.
  2. Throw any used tissues into a lined waste container as soon as possible.
  3. Clean your hands immediately afterwards.

Clean and disinfect high-touch surfaces and objects

High-touch surfaces and objects are those that people touch often, so they're more likely to be contaminated by infectious particles. These include:

Cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces and objects can remove and kill infectious particles. This reduces the risk of respiratory infectious diseases spreading to others through contact with a contaminated surface or object.


Cleaning with soap (or detergent) and water reduces the amount of germs by physically removing them.

Follow these steps after cleaning.

  1. Put used disposable cleaning items, such as cloths and wipes, in a lined waste container before throwing them out.
  2. Wash reusable cleaning items with soap (or detergent) and hot water after use.
  3. Remove your gloves (if used) and:
    • wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or
    • use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol


You can kill infectious germs by using the right disinfectants for different surfaces. Always use disinfectants according to their product label directions. Ideally, you should always clean surfaces first with soap or detergent, and then disinfect them.

Check the label for a drug identification number (DIN) confirming that Health Canada has approved the product for sale in Canada.

If an approved disinfectant isn't available, use a diluted bleach solution. Make sure to handle bleach safely, as it can irritate or burn your skin, eyes or lungs. It can also produce toxic gas if you mix it with other cleaning products.

Some of the following resources outlines household chemical safety and how to properly handle, use and dilute bleach.

What to do if you become sick

Most people who become sick with a respiratory infectious disease experience mild symptoms, such as:

Mild to moderate symptoms of some viral illnesses can be treated with rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications for pain, fever or cold and flu symptoms.

If you're worried about your symptoms or are at risk for more serious complications, consult your health care provider. They may prescribe treatments, or recommend steps or medications you can take.

When you're sick, it's especially important to use personal protective measures to help reduce the risk of spreading illness to others.

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