Mask-Wearing for People With Pulmonary Conditions

Shortness of breath and the struggle to breathe are some of the hallmark symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). During this time of COVID-19, those with compromised lungs are at an increased risk of complications if they contract the virus.

Mask-wearing is proven to be one of the most effective tools to reduce the risk of spreading and contracting COVID-19. However, many people with COPD or other pulmonary issues may wonder if mask-wearing is safe for them.

Oxygen and carbon dioxide levels

There has been some thought that wearing a face-covering can trap carbon dioxide and decrease oxygen levels. Several medical studies have shown this does not happen. There is no medical evidence that face coverings alter oxygen levels.2,4

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COVID-19 particles are larger than carbon dioxide (CO2) particles. CO2 particles are small enough to easily pass through a mask without being trapped. COVID-19 particles are larger and cannot pass through the barrier as easily, especially when the mask is fitted properly.2,4

This is not to say that feeling breathless when wearing a mask does not occur. However, oxygen levels and feeling short of breath are not always connected. Panic is one thing that can cause breathlessness. Wearing a face covering may create feelings of panic that lead to shortness of breath.2,4

Should people with COPD wear a mask?

There is not a clear agreement on whether those with COPD must wear a mask. Most doctors recommend even those with pulmonary diseases wear a face mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

When listing guidelines for mask-wearing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does provide an exemption for those with COPD or other pulmonary issues if mask-wearing is a struggle. If you cannot tolerate a mask, discuss options with your doctor for how to keep yourself safe.1-4

Proper mask-wearing

When wearing a face mask, there are important guidelines to make sure it is doing the most good. A mask should fully cover the nose, mouth, and chin. There should not be any gaps or holes at the sides of the mask. This helps prevent virus droplets in the air from passing into your lungs or to others. You should wash or sanitize your hands before touching your mask to avoid spreading germs.1-4

Once the mask is in place, it should ideally not be touched until being removed. Do not touch the inside of the mask, as it could contain COVID-19 or other germs from breathing, sneezing, or coughing into it. After removing the mask, wash or sanitize your hands again.1-4

Caring for your mask

When using a disposable mask, immediately throw it in the trash after use and wash your hands. When using a cloth mask, it should be regularly washed using warm water and soap. Choose a laundry soap that will not irritate your skin. Dry it in the dryer and store it in a clean bag, such as a resealable plastic bag, until it is needed again. Do not share your mask with anyone, even members of your household, until the mask has been washed and dried.1-2,4

Face shields

If you cannot tolerate a mask, a face shield may be an alternative to discuss with your doctor. Due to the large gaps at the sides and bottom, they are not as effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19. If using a face shield, choose one that wraps around your head and extends below the chin.1-2,4-5

As with face masks, wash or sanitize your hands before and after each use. To clean the face shield, wear disposable gloves, and first wipe down the inside of the shield with a soap solution, followed by the outside of the shield. Then, wipe the outside only with a strong disinfectant solution. Finally, wipe the outside only with water or rubbing alcohol to remove any scum left by the cleaners. Each step should be done with a different clean cloth or towel. Set the shield aside and allow it to dry. Remove and dispose of the gloves and then wash your hands. Read through the cleaning directions that come with your specific face shield, as they may vary.1-2,4-5

Reducing the spread

The best ways to reduce the spread of COVID-19 are by wearing a mask or face covering, regularly washing hands thoroughly with soap and water, social distancing, and staying home whenever possible.1-4

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