Why Masks Feel Uncomfortable Even When You’re Breathing Just Fine

Why Masks Feel Uncomfortable Even When You’re Breathing Just Fine
Photo: aonip, Shutterstock

It’s more comfortable to go bare-faced than to wear a mask. And many of us are not used to wearing them, so one’s first experience of mask-wearing ” in the middle of a pandemic ” may feel stifling. But relax: the mask isn’t actually restricting your breathing. Promise.

Remember, though some people have a medical condition that precludes mask-wearing, that has nothing to do with the myth that masks reduce the amount of oxygen you’re taking in. These conditions typically involve one of the following: they have a lung condition that can make it physically taxing to suck in enough air; they have sensory or anxiety issues that make it impossible to tolerate a piece of fabric over their mouth; or they have other issues that would make it difficult to remove the mask if needed (for example, babies should not wear masks). Simply finding the sensation of wearing a mask unpleasant is not a medical condition.

So what happens when you put a mask over your mouth and nose? You’re not blocking your air supply. You are allowing warmth, moisture and your own coffee breath to collect just under your nose. You may sweat a bit. There may be a stray fibre in there that tickles your nose.

In severe cases, a person might be so stressed out they have a panic attack. A panic attack may sometimes include a feeling of difficulty breathing, and I truly believe there may be people who had a panic attack because of their fears about masks and and concluded that the mask itself had interfered with their breathing.

But the mask does not stop oxygen from getting into your airways. It does not fill your lungs with carbon dioxide. We’re talking here about surgical masks, N95s and the various models of cloth masks, homemade and store-bought, that are commonly being worn. If you have found or made something out of unorthodox materials ” plastic, rubber, whatever ” and feel it’s restricting your breathing, you may want to try a regular cloth or disposable mask instead.

Look at all this oxygen

And yet, some people are convinced that masks reduce your oxygen intake so much that they make you woozy or confused. “How can a construction worker wear an N95 for hours, then?” these people never ask themselves.

When that myth began circulating, healthcare workers everywhere let out a collective “What the fuck???“ and began making TikToks, Instagram posts, Twitter videos. Here are just a few in which people who work masked every damn day show you that their O2 sats are just fine. For example, surgeon Joshua Wolrich tweeted this video:

(Oxygen saturation of the blood is what those clippy finger monitors measure. Healthy people generally have a SpO2 of 95 or better. If you’re much below 90, you should probably be in the hospital.)

Have we forgotten that healthcare workers wear masks for hours at a time? Here, paediatrician Daniel Summers posts oxygen updates throughout a nine-hour shift. Here, a nurse notes that she pulls 13-hour shifts in an N95 and a surgical mask. Here, physician Maitiu O Tuathail puts on a mask, and then another, and another, and even with six masks stacked on top of each other, his oxygen is still at 99%.

I mean…if masks robbed us of oxygen, surgery would not exist as we know it.

Despite these facts, you will find videos on social media that purport to show the opposite, but there’s always something fishy about them. For example, one by aspiring Pennsylvania state senator Jeff Neff uses a gas detector (not a pulse oximeter) to demonstrate that inside of a mask, we supposedly have less oxygen to breathe. However, the manufacturer of the gas detector says it isn’t made for this type of measurement. And when Neff did a follow-up video with a pulse oximeter, his oxygen saturation levels stayed in the high 90s the whole time.