Good Question: Are Masks Keeping Us From Getting Oxygen?

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the public received mixed messages as to whether or not they need to be wearing a face-covering when out in public. Since then, however, public health officials around the world have come to one resounding conclusion: everyone should wear a face mask in public spaces.

In the United States, however, masks have become a highly contentious and polarizing political issue. Despite the insistence by public health officials that wearing masks is a crucial safety precaution, there are still thousands of Americans who are fighting back, claiming that wearing a mask is dangerous to your health.

But what are the effects of masks on oxygen levels? Do they really prevent you from breathing properly? Is wearing a mask more dangerous than the coronavirus itself? According to Dr. Dave Hnida, and countless other health authorities, this is simply not the case [1].

Let’s have a look at some of the claims some people are making about mask-wearing, and find out the truth.

Myth #1: Masks Deprive You of Oxygen

One of the claims that anti-mask advocates are making is that wearing a mask is dangerous to your health because it deprives you of oxygen. One Facebook post made the following claim:

“wearing a mask for an 8-hour shift can reduce your oxygen intake level to a 93 if you have healthy lungs … it is not healthy to have your oxygen level at that.”  [2]

According to the Mayo Clinic, a healthy oxygen intake (in other words, the amount of oxygen circulating in your blood), ranges from 95 to 100 percent. Anything below 90 percent is considered low. 

A reduced oxygen intake can lead to hypoxemia, which is low oxygen supply in your arteries, or hypoxia, which is when there is an insufficient supply of oxygen to the tissues [3].

But do masks cause either of these two conditions? No.

Dr. Daniel Pahua Díaz, an academic from the Department of Public Health at the National Autonomous University of Mexico medical school, says that this misinformation may arise because people feel like they’re getting less air due to mechanical obstruction of a face covering, but that is because they’re just not used to wearing one.

“But as such it will not cause us any kind of hypoxia,” he says [2].

Dr. Hnida did a little experiment to illustrate the effects that masks have on oxygen intake. He recruited Carmen Farwell, a fourteen-year-old soccer player, to run with a pulse oximeter on her finger. After she stopped running, the oximeter showed a reading of 93, which indicates the saturation level of oxygen in her red blood cells. Keep in mind, this girl was running at a high elevation of 6400 feet, which already would decrease the oxygen levels in her blood.

He had her run again, this time while wearing a mask. When she returned, the oximeter read 94, then went up to 95, then down to 92 and 93. The conclusion? Masks don’t deprive you of oxygen. Why, you ask? 

“It’s just not tightly-woven enough,” he said [1].

Dr. Hnida explained that masks can stop the droplets that contain viral particles, particularly during exhalations, but they do allow the much smaller oxygen particles in, and the carbon dioxide particles out [1].

Read: ‘Maskne’ is the new acne and it’s caused by wearing a mask

Myth #2: Masks Cause You to Breath in Your Own CO2

A diagram taken from wikipedia illustrating the symptoms of carbon dioxide toxicity was edited to include the claim that wearing a mask causes you to re-breath your own exhaled carbon dioxide.

This diagram has now been widely circulated on the internet, and just like the claims made about masks and oxygen deprivation, it is false.

Professor Keith Neil, an infectious disease expert, says that carbon dioxide poisoning, also known as hypercapnia, will not happen unless your mask has an air-tight fit. This is because like oxygen, carbon dioxide molecules are much smaller than the droplets that contain the coronavirus, which masks are designed to stop [4].

In other words, when you breathe out, carbon dioxide will go through and around your mask. This is why surgeons, who wear much heavier-duty face coverings like N95 masks, can perform a twelve-hour surgery without damaging their own health.

“There have been reports of some medics developing headaches linked to wearing personal protective equipment for long periods of time, but it’s still highly unlikely they would suffer from some of the more extreme effects of carbon dioxide toxicity,” says Rachel Schraer, BBC Health reporter [4].

It is also important to note that unlike healthcare workers, the general public is not wearing a face mask for prolonged periods of time.

A Note on N95 Masks

N95 respirators could cause the buildup of over time, which can be mitigated by simply taking a quick break and briefly removing the mask. That being said, the general public does not typically wear their masks for a long enough period of time for this to happen.

The CDC does not recommend that the general public wear N95 masks, however, this is not for health reasons, but rather because they are necessary protective equipment for frontline healthcare workers and should be reserved for those individuals who need them more [5].

Darrell Spurlock Jr., Ph.D., RN, the director of the Leadership Center for Nursing Education Research at Widener University and a professor in Widener’s Ph.D. in Nursing program, says that the tiny amounts of CO2 that might be “re-breathed” while wearing either a properly fitted N95 mask or a loosely fitted cloth or surgical mask are of no concern for the vast majority of people.

“The ‘dose’ of CO2 we might rebreathe while masking is quickly and easily eliminated by both the respiratory and metabolic systems in the body,” he said. “I worry a thousand times more about viral transmission than any negative effects arising from mask wearing per CDC guidelines.” [6]

Read: Vintage picture shows football fans wearing masks during 1918 pandemic

Is There Anyone Who Shouldn’t Wear a Mask?

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital, New York, says that the only people who may have cause for concern are those with sleep apnea or severe lung disease that require oxygen. Those people, he emphasises, should speak with their physician about wearing a mask [6].

According to Dr. Spurlock, someone with severe lung disease, who is already having difficulty maintaining oxygenation and balanced CO2 because of lung damage may be more sensitive to a slight increase in carbon dioxide levels.

 “Even then,” he said, “higher CO2 levels actually stimulate breathing to blow off the excess CO2 in the blood first.” [6]

He also pointed out that individuals with very specific chronic respiratory disease should avoid exposure to the virus at any cost, so their need for a mask should be minimal anyways. In any case, those people should check with their healthcare provider before wearing a mask [6].

Masks Save Lives

The bottom line is that masks save lives by helping reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. 

“The only thing that’s been shown to work against coronavirus has been use of a mask. It cuts down transmission by minimum of fifty percent… that’s your tried and true science right there,” says Dr. Hindi [1].

Wearing a mask, combined with physical distancing and hand hygiene, can mitigate the transmission of the virus and protect vulnerable people. It is without a doubt that the risks associated with wearing a mask are negligible compared to the risks of transmitting a deadly virus, and it is imperative that we all do our part to stop the spread.

Are masks comfortable? Maybe not, but they’re not dangerous to your health either. If you’re not going to wear one for your self, do it for someone else.

Keep Reading: Fabric Masks Need 3 Specific Layers to Effectively Block Coronavirus, WHO Says

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