A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

COVID-19 masks: The truth about oxygen and CO2

Can wearing masks cause CO2 problems?

Masks do not reduce oxygen intake or increase the amount of carbon dioxide you take in when breathing.

Editor’s note: This article was published on July 22, 2020. COVID-19 information and recommendations are subject to change. For the most up-to-date information, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website or view our most recent COVID-19 blog posts.

Most people do not like wearing masks. They can be hot and you may feel that wearing a mask makes it harder to breathe. Despite these discomforts, masks do not reduce oxygen intake or increase the amount of carbon dioxide you take in when breathing. Claims to the contrary are false.

“In most cases, masks will not cause you any harm from reducing your oxygen intake and increasing your carbon dioxide levels,” said Michelle Kaiser, infection preventionist at Marshfield Clinic Health System. “All types of masks are made to allow small particles like oxygen and carbon dioxide to flow through the mask.”

Masks may cause issues if you have severe breathing problems, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend individuals with such health conditions wear masks. People with less severe breathing problems, such as asthma, should be able to tolerate a mask. If you have any concerns about wearing a mask, you should talk with your doctor.

Below are additional myths about wearing masks:

Can wearing a mask cause hypoxia or hypercapnia?

Hypoxia is when your body is not able to get enough oxygen. Hypercapnia is when carbon dioxide levels are elevated in your blood. Both conditions can cause dizziness, shortness of breath, headache and many other symptoms.

Wearing a mask is unlikely to cause these types of conditions, and only individuals with other chronic breathing conditions like COPD could experience these symptoms while wearing a mask.

Does a mask collect CO2?

Carbon dioxide can get trapped inside of the mask where you breathe, but not at high enough levels that could cause hypercapnia.

Carbon dioxide is made up of tiny particles, which can easily pass through the mask or out the sides of the mask.

“Masks are designed to trap large particles from respiratory droplets like those common in COVID-19,” Kaiser said. “The fact that they can trap larger particles while also letting smaller particles go through is why masks are effective ways to flatten the curve.”

Are N95 respirators harder to breathe through?

Compared to a cloth face covering, N95 respirators do make it harder to breathe. However, they do not collect carbon dioxide or restrict oxygen at a high enough level to affect your health.

N95 respirators were created to protect against even smaller particles than average masks and also splashes and sprays common in health care professions. The CDC recommends the general public not wear N95 respirators because there is a shortage of N95 respirators and health care workers on the front lines need them to do their jobs. N95 respirators are most effective and safe when passing a medical screening and being properly fit tested.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, many health care workers have had to wear facemasks for the entire day when caring for patients. Surgical staff have always worn facemasks during surgeries, which can go for several hours,” Kaiser said. “Most of the complaints about N95 respirators are related to overheating or causing skin irritation not lack of oxygen.”

If you have a chronic health condition that affects the way you breathe, you should talk to your doctor about whether you should wear a mask when social distancing cannot be maintained.

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