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Face Coverings Don’t Limit Oxygen Levels – Here’s Why

As the pandemic stretches into another fall and winter, it is clear that COVID-19 is not going away any time soon. Cases in our state continue to rise and wearing face coverings continues to be recommended to protect one another from the virus.

Do Masks Diminish Oxygen Levels?

“There is no medical evidence that wearing a CDC-recommended mask causes depleted oxygen levels,” said Brian Delmonaco, MD, lead intensive care hospitalist at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center. “Many professions wear masks all day long on the job, including hospital employees.”

The three types of masks – surgical, N95 and cloth – are all porous, letting oxygen in and carbon dioxide out. The CDC recommends that face coverings contain two or more layers of fabric and should cover both the nose and mouth and be secure under the chin.

While a mask adds some resistance to breathing, “porous masks do not lower oxygen saturation levels,” said Dr. Delmonaco.

It’s the feeling of that extra resistance that, for some people, can prompt a psychological response like fear or anxiety.

Tip 1 – Overcome Anxiety

For people who feel anxious about masking up, the American Lung Association recommends practice. Start by wearing a mask while watching a TV show, for example, and then try wearing a mask while doing something active like preparing dinner or walking through the neighborhood. Going slowly allows the body and mind to adjust to the feeling of the mask.

The CDC recommends that everyone over the age of two wear a mask, except for those who cannot remove a mask on their own, or for those who have trouble breathing.

What if You Have Asthma or COPD?

Because of that feeling of resistance while wearing a mask, many wonder about those with compromised lung issues, those with asthma or COPD, for example? Should they wear a mask?

“We recommend that those with pulmonary issues wear masks too. Since we know that COVID-19 often attacks the lungs, people with lung disease are at a much higher risk for infection,” Delmonaco said. “If your issues are severe, it might be best for you to stay home and distance from others but talk with your doctor about any worries you have.”

While those who receive supplemental oxygen need to regularly monitor their oxygen saturation levels to adjust how much oxygen they receive, most healthy adults do not need to worry about oxygen levels.

Still, because shortness of breath is a recognized symptom of COVID-19, some are purchasing pulse oximeters. These devices clip onto a finger and measure a person’s level of oxygen saturation. This is the same test your primary care provider will likely give you at your yearly exam. A normal range for oxygen saturation is 94 to 100%.

Tip 2 – Improve Lung Health

Keeping our lungs in good shape, just like our body overall, is imperative to good lung health. It starts with not smoking or quitting smoking, as well as getting regular exercise.

“As we exercise, we strengthen our muscles, including our heart and lung muscles, so it’s important to get consistent exercise, especially aerobic exercise, to maintain lung health,” Delmonaco said.

While exercising outside, so long as you’re not around others, going without a face mask is acceptable; however, inside most gyms right now, including SamFit, face coverings are required.

“Until you get used to working out in a mask, you may need to adjust your intensity or duration. Pay attention to your body and, if you feel dizziness, take a break,” said Delmonaco. “You may tire more easily too. Just be patient with this new way of exercising until your body adjusts to that extra bit of resistance prompted by the mask.”

While wearing a face covering can feel awkward and even uncomfortable in the beginning, with patience and even a bit of practice it can feel more natural.

“I find that when I keep in mind the reason that I’m wearing a mask in the first place – to protect my family, friends and neighbors from potentially dangerous health consequences – I feel better about wearing one,” said Delmonaco. “A positive attitude can go a long way.”

Dr. Delmonaco also serves as medical director for Samaritan Medical Group Pulmonology - Corvallis. If you are worried about your breathing, contact your primary care provider for a referral to a specialist.