Posted on: April 2, 2020 at 8:13 pm

In light of the recent global pandemic currently plaguing the world, it’s about time we pulled up the archives to learn what people did to survive during other terrible pandemics. Many who survived the 1918 Spanish flu era wore face masks as one of their defenses, and this might be a helpful tip for our generation currently facing the COVID-19 pandemic [1]


Just when World War 1 was finally coming to an end, another enemy struck the world in the form of a lethal fast-spreading virus, affecting everyone indiscriminately. The young, the old, the sick and the healthy were not spared from the 1918 Spanish flu caused by a strain of the H1N1 virus [2]. A third of the world’s population at the time, estimably 500 million people became infected in 18 months. A majority recovered but an estimated 20 to 50 million people, 4 to 10 percent of the infected person died from the flu [3].

Related: Opinion: Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired



One hundred years later and there is still no consensus on the exact origins of the virus. It was nicknamed the “Spanish flu” because Spain was one of the earliest countries where the pandemic struck. One theory proposed that had avian origins and could have been transferred from humans to birds [4]. Others blamed it on Chinese propaganda, a hospital in France, and even a county in the United States. However, it remains uncertain how the Spanish flu broke out and left the world in a state of deep despair. 

Soldiers and sailors who lived in cramped barracks and ships were some of the most affected, and it’s believed that these two groups contributed to the spread of the infection when they docked at communities in their home countries [5]

Symptoms and mortality

The Spanish flu is the first of two global pandemics caused by the H1N1 influenza virus, where the second is the 2009 swine flu [6]. It attacked the respiratory system and was highly contagious, easily transmitted by droplets in the air. Symptoms included a hacking dry cough, headache, fever, sore throat, gastritis, and excessive sweating [2]. As the condition progressed, severe symptoms such as pneumonia and respiratory failure may follow. The worst-case scenario was death.

Mortality rates varied, and people between the ages of 20 and 40, below 5 and above 65 were hit the hardest [7]. It is widely thought that secondary bacterial infections such as pneumonia were more responsible for most deaths during the pandemic than the virus itself [8]


Read: How Will The Coronavirus Pandemic Come To An End?


At the time of the pandemic, the Spanish flu defied all known treatments and there were no antivirals, antibiotics or vaccines to be administered for targeted relief. Doctors worked with supportive care and natural remedies in attempt to help their patients [9]. They focused on treating symptoms such as cough, fever, and headaches. 

In 1918, a doctor in Boston came up with open-air treatment [10]. Patients were exposed to fresh air and sunlight, two natural elements believed to contain germicidal properties [11]. This method, coupled with the use of face masks and proper hygiene helped saved a lot of lives during that time.

Related: Taking cues from the 1918 Influenza Pandemic, could sunlight and fresh air help manage the coronavirus outbreak?

People were ordered to wear protective masks and stay indoors to control the spread of the virus. The world economy collapsed badly as businesses, schools and financial institutions were shut down to keep people safe. 


The virus vanished completely in late 1919, and it remains unclear how. One theory states that doctors became more effective in treating the symptoms and providing targeted care to their patients. Another theory proposed that the viral strain became less lethal with time, a behavior common with many influenza viruses.

The coronavirus, a century later

As the world battles the COVID-19 outbreak just over 100 years later, the public are being advised to practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the disease [12]. Many countries have gone into total or partial lockdown where everyone who does not provide essential services has been ordered to stay home. Self-isolation is important if you are sick or were possibly exposed to the virus. Not everyone who gets infected will show symptoms (at least not immediately) or require hospitalization [13]

If you have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or exposed to someone who is already sick, wearing a mask can help you protect others from getting it [14]. The virus is transmitted by droplets in the air or surfaces, and face masks can help you keep others safe. Also, face masks, and particularly respirator masks (i.e. N95, N99) should be reserved for those who come in close contact with sick people, mostly health workers and front-liners.

Respirator masks, do not need to be used by the general public (i.e. those not in constant contact with someone who has COVID-19). However, there is evidence that regular surgical masks could offer some benefit when out in public. It should be noted however that washing your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and water, using hand sanitizer (when soap and water is not available), not touching your face, and phsysical/social distancing are still the primary methods of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Yes, thats even if you’re wearing a mask. 

So to could wider use of surgical masks be helpful in combating the coronavirus? Quite possibly, but it doesnt replace any other measures currently being recommend, not by a long shot. 

Keep Reading: Coronavirus Could Travel 27 feet, Stay in Air for Hours: MIT Researcher

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and is for information only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions about your medical condition and/or current medication. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking advice or treatment because of something you have read here.

  1. Tomes, Nancy. “Destroyer and Teacher”: Managing the Masses During the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic. PMC. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  2. All about History. Spanish flu: The deadliest pandemic in history. Live Science. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  3. Chowell et al. Mortality patterns associated with the 1918 influenza pandemic in Mexico: evidence for a spring herald wave and lack of pre-existing immunity in older populations. PMC. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  4. Taubenberger, Jeffrey. The Origin and Virulence of the 1918 “Spanish” Influenza Virus1. PMC. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  5. Byerly, Carol. The U.S. Military and the Influenza Pandemic of 1918–1919. PMC. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  6. 2009 H1N1 Pandemic (H1N1pdm09 virus). CDC. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  7. 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus). CDC. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  8. Ewen Callaway. Bacteria were the real killers in 1918 flu pandemic. New Scientist. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  9. Klein H.A. THE TREATMENT OF “SPANISH INFLUENZA”. Jama Network. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  10. Hobday et al. The Open-Air Treatment of PANDEMIC INFLUENZA. PMC. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  11. Hobday et al. Roles of sunlight and natural ventilation for controlling infection: historical and current perspectives. Journal of Hospital Infection. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  12. Basic protective measures against the new coronavirus. WHO. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  13. Apoorva Mandavilli. Infected but Feeling Fine: The Unwitting Coronavirus Spreaders. NY Times. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  14. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) advice for the public: When and how to use masks. WHO. Retrieved 01-04-2020
  15. Vintage Photos Of People Wearing Masks During The 1918 Influenza Pandemic, One Of The Deadliest Natural Disasters In Human History. Design You Trust. Retrieved 01-04-2020
Penelope Wilson
Team Writer
Penelope is a writer and health enthusiast with a B.Arts in Language Studies. She is a deeply spiritual person, a relationship expert, a nutrition freak, and a skin-care maverick.

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