serious business woman wearing a mask

Struggling to wear a mask? Follow this advice

It’s true that wearing a mask can be uncomfortable or annoying, but it’s also one of the most effective steps we can take as a society to prevent the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

While wearing masks has become much more mainstream in American society, many of us struggle with wearing a mask.

The good news is that the masks commonly used to prevent the spread of COVID-19 allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to flow through much more easily, though they can capture droplets containing the virus.

For the vast majority of people, “physiologically and medically speaking, there’s no harmful risk for anyone,” said Patrick Whitten, MD, an OSF HealthCare pulmonologist.

And while mask-induced anxiety might be just that – anxiety – it still can be a struggle for some people to wear a mask for long periods of time.

“For the general population without significant lung disease, I think it’s more of a feeling of discomfort, claustrophobia from the warmth of breathing your own warm air,” Dr. Whitten said.

Who’s at risk

If wearing a mask over your nose and mouth makes you feel like you can’t breathe, there are two general explanations for that sensation.

One is that you truly have an underlying lung or respiratory condition that may be exacerbated by a mask.

“With people with significant lung disease, if you cover their mouth and nose with anything, they do feel a little bit short of breath,” Dr. Whitten said.

When Dr. Whitten refers to “significant lung disease,” he’s talking about something more serious than routine asthma, which can usually be controlled with treatment.

Conditions such as emphysema, pulmonary fibrosis or another illness that could cause a person to receive oxygen therapy could explain that difficulty, which may be cause for concern.

“If your lung disease is so severe that it causes you that much discomfort, you probably shouldn’t be out and about. It may be safer for somebody else to do your errands if you can find that person,” Dr. Whitten said.

Studies have shown that people with properly functioning lung and respiratory symptoms do not experience a change in blood oxygen levels when wearing a mask. What’s making you feel uncomfortable is more likely a mental block than a physiological lack of oxygen.

“I have patients every day that come in and say, ‘I hate this mask. I can’t breathe.’ Or, ‘I’m short of breath.’ I tell them, ‘That’s OK. That’s a normal feeling, but rest assured that your oxygen level is OK, and you’re protecting other people,’” Dr. Whitten said.

Mask training

family of four preparing for outside activities and wearing their masksWhile wearing a mask can be difficult, it’s necessary in the face of the current pandemic.

“In the end, it’s just the right thing to do,” Dr. Whitten said.

The director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called masks our “best defense” against the virus. Paired with physical distancing and washing your hands, masking prevents the spread of COVID-19.

However, not all masks are created equal when it comes to comfort for an individual. If you’re struggling to wear a mask, try these tips:

  • If you struggle with a cloth mask, try a disposable paper mask instead. Also called surgical masks, these may be thinner and lighter than a reusable cloth mask while still offering you protection.
  • If the ear loops bother you, look for a mask with ties that go behind your head. These mask sewing instructions contain suggested fabrics and the option for either loops or ties.
  • Don’t give up too easily. The more you wear your mask, the more used to it you will become.

“I also tell people, if they truly cannot wear the mask – if they feel that uncomfortable wearing it – they should not go out,” Dr. Whitten said.

Many communities in the U.S. and throughout the world have demonstrated that these measures can keep the spread of the virus under control, but only if people in those communities comply.

“We have to do this. We have to do it for each other,” Dr. Whitten said. “This is how we get through this together.”

Last Updated: October 7, 2020

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About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: COVID-19, Mental Health