As coronavirus cases surge in the U.S., lawmakers and public health officials are urging Americans to wear face masks in public. And despite some confusion early on when officials were advising against mask use, the scientific community has reached a consensus: Covering your mouth and nose in public is a safe, easy way to reduce coronavirus transmission.
So, with the science clear, why do some Americans refuse to wear a face mask? The answer is, in part, because the issue is steeped in myth and misinformation. For example, many believe that masks limit their oxygen intake and expose them to harmful levels of CO2.
To address some common concerns about the safety and efficacy of masks, we had a socially distanced sit-down with Dr. Mark Zeitzer, our Medical Director of Acute Care Services.
Hi Mark! Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk masks. First of all: is there any evidence to suggest that wearing a mask could cause CO2 poisoning?
Simply put, no. The use of cloth and paper masks can be uncomfortable or feel foreign. However, it does not cause CO2 intoxication or oxygen deficiency. There is simply no scientific evidence stating that there is any danger of CO2 poisoning created by temporary or prolonged mask use.
Are masks even capable of catching or keeping unhealthy amounts of CO2 within the mask itself?
No, they aren’t. We’re lucky, because we’re not wearing masks that form a tight seal. Only an airtight face-covering could possibly cause carbon dioxide to build up to dangerous levels. Cloth and paper masks, which allow for a certain amount of breathability, are perfectly safe.
The biggest thing to remember is that masks create a barrier between your germs and other people. They catch things in our expired air, and respiratory droplets that come out of our noses and mouths. This helps decrease the spread of the virus.
Can regular or frequent mask-wearing deplete oxygen levels?
There is no evidence that mask-wearing decreases oxygen levels or increases CO2 levels. It may feel like it, however, because wearing a mask can be uncomfortable. Most of us aren’t used to having our mouths and noses covered for long periods of time.
But no, masks do not deplete oxygen levels. If you want to find out for yourself, you can do the simple experiment of putting a pulse oximeter (pulse ox) on your finger and wearing a mask for a few hours. You’ll find there is no correlation between decreased pulse ox levels and wearing a mask. You can even exercise with a mask on, and you will not see reduced pulse-ox levels.
Can regular mask-wearing compromise one’s immune system?
Interestingly, I haven’t heard this angle before. No, wearing a mask does not inhibit the use of our immune systems in any way. If anything, a mask acts as an ally to our immune system, because it protects the wearer from receiving particles from others.
But really, what masks do best is protect other people. By serving as a barrier, they block what we’re breathing out. When we wear a mask, it decreases droplet and aerosol transmission tremendously, and it’s not inhibiting our immune system from working well.
Should individuals with asthma or similar other pre-existing respiratory issues approach mask-wearing any differently?
You know, I can only encourage people with asthma to wear masks more frequently. That’s because asthma patients are at an increased risk to COVID-19, since their lungs don’t work as well. They could have broncho-spasm or things like that. Actually, wearing a mask can help them. Asthma is a form of allergy, and if they’re wearing a mask over their nose and mouth, they will bring in fewer allergens. So, in reality, their asthma will be more well-controlled.
Can wearing a mask cause or induce anxiety?
Not for someone who doesn’t already have anxiety.
For those with anxiety, wearing a mask can get to their psyche—they may feel like they can’t breathe as well. It can make some people feel like they’re suffocating.
This is a very stressful time for all of us, and everyone’s anxiety has increased. However, it can be reassuring to look at the facts. Masks are not harmful. When you wear a mask, CO2 is not retained, and oxygen levels are not decreased. It may feel uncomfortable to wear one for long periods of time, but it’s not detrimental to your health.
If you’re anxious about wearing a mask, practicing wearing one at home, in an environment where you feel comfortable. It will help you get used to the sensation.
“Really, what masks do best is protect other people.”Dr. Mark Zeitzer
What sources can we trust when seeking information about the safety and risks of regular mask use? Doctors or social media investigators?
It’s a difficult question. We’re supposed to be in the information age, but the truth has become deceptive. I think you have to be exceptionally careful about what you’re reading online and seeing on social media. Social media posts aren’t editorialized. They’re just put there—anyone can say anything!
When looking for information, you want to find things that are peer-reviewed. Pay attention to organizations whose statements are reviewed by multiple people. You also want to check to see if there’s a political or financial bend coming from that organization. Organizations like the CDC, the WHO, the Washington State Department of Health and the Oregon Department of Health provide useful information that is well-vetted. But again, you have to be very careful about what’s on social media.
Is it safe for young children to wear masks?
That’s a great question. The CDC recommends that anyone over two years old wear a mask when they’re out in public. However, mask-wearing is not indicated for kids less than two years old, and for kids while they’re sleeping. Those are two big things to remember.
Because children don’t tend to get as sick with COVID, parents might be lax about having them wear masks. However, kids can certainly spread it. Also, we just don’t know enough about the virus at this time. There could be side effects that we see further down the road.
It’s important to remember that children are amazingly resilient and adaptable. I see them wearing masks comfortably and getting used to it, which is really wonderful to see.
Anything else you’d like to add?
This week, the CDC released more information about a situation in Missouri, where two hair stylists learned they had COVID-19 after they had interacted with 139 clients. An investigation found that none of these clients were known to be infected with COVID-19. The hair stylists and clients wore face coverings, which likely helped prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In other words—masks work. Wearing a mask is a selfless act that protects those around you, including your loved ones.