COVID-19 FAQs: Does wearing a mask affect your breathing?

Discomfort or panic can cause faster breathing, but you're getting enough air

COVID-19 FAQs: Does wearing a mask affect your breathing?

This new normal amid a pandemic is bringing on new anxiety over having to wear a face mask, which raises the question: Does wearing a face mask actually affect our ability to breathe?

Likely no, said Emily Gard, MSW, a clinical social worker specializing in behavioral health counseling in Fargo, North Dakota.

“Wearing a mask really has no impact on our overall quality and ability to breathe,” she said. “Sometimes there can be a perception that it may be difficult, but the research shows us there is no change in our ability to breathe.”

The CDC recommends mask use for anyone who is not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, age 2 and older. It warns against placing masks on children younger than 2, or on anyone who has trouble breathing or cannot remove the mask without assistance.

Learn more: Latest CDC guidelines on wearing masks

Wearing a mask is a massive change in our everyday lives and for a lot of us, it takes a while to get used to that kind of change.

“We hear people feeling a little bit hesitant or wondering if they’re really affected and if they should be wearing a mask. For the most part people are willing to wear a mask, see the importance of it and adapt really quickly.”

Why do people feel this way?

“It’s a visual reminder of some of the scary things going on in the world. It’s a change from what we’re used to,” Gard told Sanford Health News. “We’re not used to going out, having to put a mask over our face which is a sensitive place for us.”

“When you think about feeling hot or cold, you often times feel that on your face. If you’re covering your mouth, there’s a perception that we’re feeling warm and as a natural response, our body starts to breathe faster. The faster we breathe, the warmer we get, which is what our bodies are supposed to do. But it’s not always comfortable when we have a mask over our face.”

How do we combat this anxiety?

Gard says we first need to recognize it’s normal to not feel normal.

“Recognizing that ‘I am feeling uncomfortable’ and that is OK,” she said. “Be kind to yourself. Another thing, as we wear them, our body and brains start to adapt and get more accustomed to it.”

Heightened feelings of anxiety can bring on faster breathing. In which case, she says, take a “breathing break.”

“Step outside if you can, do deep belly breaths, or diaphragmatic breaths. To do so, you want the belly part of your body to be moving instead of your chest.”

Other useful tips include chewing gum, aromatherapy, and wearing lip balm or lip gloss. Those distractions help train the brain to think about something else aside from the perception that you’re having trouble breathing.

Measuring pulse, oxygen with and without mask

Suzanne Sundbald, LPN at Sanford 32nd & Ellis Clinic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, used a finger pulse oximeter to record both pulse and oxygen levels.

Typically, she likes to see oxygen levels between 94-99%. A normal, resting heart rate is 60-100 beats per minute.

Comparing with versus without a face mask, she says, you won’t see much fluctuation in numbers.

This was originally published July 20, 2020. It was last updated June 10, 2021, with CDC recommendations about mask use.

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Posted In Behavioral Health, COVID-19, Expert Q&A, Fargo, Frequently Asked Questions, Sioux Falls