You may have heard reports recently about the effects of respirator masks on people who wear them all day. They paint a scary picture, one that creates an impossible choice: Leave everyone open to exposure or put everyone at risk of passing out from low oxygen levels. But it’s important to get all the facts before throwing away those masks.
Some people have been promoting claims that lengthy mask use can reduce oxygen levels, making them a potential hazard for people wearing them all day. It's possible that these reports originated from politically motivated sources. But being well and keeping those around us well is not a political act. So let's look at the facts.
In early May, a report in a Nigerian ezine, Vanguard, warned that all-day use of N95 respirators could be dangerous. In the report, Dr. Dennis A. Castro B. claimed that the masks may cause users to breathe in excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, leading to intoxication, fatigue and dangerously high levels of lactic acid building in the body. In his statement, the doctor recommended users lift their masks every 10 minutes to clear out stale air.
But a report in Scientific American indicates that changes have been made to N95 respirators to eliminate these challenges and better protect nurses and others in need of the best COVID-19 protection.
An N95 respirator mask is designed to protect healthcare workers when they enter a room where an infected person has been potentially contaminating the air. According to one study, physical exertion while wearing an N95 respirator can be more taxing on the body, but not to the extremes described by Dr. Castro B.
People with lung conditions should definitely be careful about using such a restrictive face covering. Most healthy people, including pregnant nurses, are safe to use N95 respirator masks for hours at a time without worry of any physical harm.
Even more importantly, no one is asking the general public to use such restrictive masks. The CDC recommends using a simple cloth covering — even a folded bandana will work — for everyday interactions outside the home, along with 6-feet of social distancing. A cloth mask is nothing like the tight-fitting, body-taxing N95 respirators making headlines. PolitiFact has investigated cloth face covers and deemed them perfectly safe in most cases. Just make sure not to use any kind of face cover on children younger than 2, anyone in severe respiratory distress or anyone who’s fallen unconscious.
Remember, we’re wearing masks to protect other people from our germs, not the other way around. A cloth mask is designed to reduce what each of us might be shedding when we breathe, talk, cough or sneeze. COVID-19 has a high asymptomatic transmission rate, so people who assume they’re healthy enough to go without a face covering can be a real danger to others.
Some of the reports going around are alarming, but that doesn’t mean there’s any reason to panic and abandon covering your face altogether. We owe it to our communities to do our best by one another. If we follow the CDC’s recommendations, we can safely and effectively help reduce the pandemic’s spread.
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