The Pitt Prescription | Debunking common mask myths

The Pitt Prescription is a biweekly blog where student pharmacist and senior staff writer Elizabeth Donnelly provides tips on how to stay healthy in college. This edition was reviewed by Karen S. Pater, PharmD., CDCES, BCACP.

By Elizabeth Donnelly, Senior Staff Writer

There are many rumors going around about wearing masks, so it’s important to learn facts versus fiction when it comes to something this important. As talked about in a previous edition of this blog, masks are a vital part of pandemic control, and it is important to understand why. Here are some of the most common masking myths and the truth behind each one.

Myth: Wearing a face covering can prevent you from getting the proper amount of oxygen and masks in general make it harder to breathe.

Fact: Adequate masks are not tight enough to cause someone to breathe improperly. In fact, oxygen particles are so small that they can pass through any mask with ease — even the tightest of N95 respirators! If you feel as though you cannot breathe properly with a mask on, it is likely just a trick of the mind because your body is not used to the continuous feeling of a mask.

Myth: Wearing a mask for too long can cause carbon dioxide toxicity and headaches because you are consistently breathing in your own carbon dioxide.

Fact: This goes hand in hand with the previous myth about low oxygen levels. Both oxygen and carbon dioxide particles are so small that they have no trouble passing through masks (even respirators like N95s). To put it in perspective, the average size of the coronavirus is 70 to 90 nanometers, whereas the size of an oxygen molecule is 0.152 nm, and the size of a carbon dioxide molecule is 0.334 nm.

While some people have attributed headaches to a buildup of carbon dioxide, you can see this is false from the previous evidence. Headaches are an annoying aspect of mask wearing, especially if you have to wear them for long periods of time. Headaches can come from numerous sources. First, if your mask is ill-fitted and too tight around the ears, it could be causing pain because of the pressure exerted on your head. Additionally, other sources of headaches could be strong scents, like fragrances or bad breath, and dehydration.

Myth: I’m young and not at risk for contracting the virus. I also feel totally fine so I don’t need to socially distance or wear a mask.

Fact: I cannot stress this enough — wear a mask when you are near other people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that infected individuals can be asymptomatic and feel fine for days before showing symptoms. During this time, any person they come into contact with is at risk for contracting the virus. About 50% of transmissions are reported to occur before the presence of symptoms, which is why wearing a mask and maintaining distance is in everyone’s best interest. Additionally, while older individuals are at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19, everyone is susceptible, even young people. Wearing a mask not only protects yourself, but it protects others around you, including older individuals who may be at a higher risk for getting seriously sick.

Myth: Any mask is better than no mask, even ones with valves or holes in them.

Fact: Unfortunately, any masks with open holes in them are not better than no mask at all. The CDC specifically warns against using masks with vents or valves in them because they are not effective at preventing the spread of droplets, which is the entire point of wearing a mask. There has also been a recent trend where masks are being made specifically with straw holes in them so people can drink while wearing a mask. These holes are still large enough to let out a significant amount of droplets and also will not protect the person wearing them as much. When closed, straw-hole masks may still be more effective than no mask, but if the hole accidentally opens or the person wearing it forgets to close it, then it is likely not going to be effective.

Myth: Masks are a scare tactic and it is unconstitutional to force me to wear one.

Fact: Yes, some people believe this. But masks are not a scare tactic and they should not be treated politically. Wearing a mask is for the good of our community as a whole. Also, according to the 10th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, state governments are allowed to enforce rules such as quarantining and masking to uphold public safety measures. Mask laws are implemented for the good of each community and to maintain public health and safety as much as possible. Just like seatbelt laws were once seen as unconstitutional, most people now adhere to them daily without batting an eye.

Myth: Wearing a mask fogs my eyewear, so I should not wear a mask because I have to be able to see clearly when doing my work or other daily activities.

Fact: Many masks will fog glasses and other eyewear — but there are several ways to get around these issues in order to still be able to wear both your glasses and a mask. The fogging comes from the air you breathe escaping the top of your mask and hitting your glasses. The warm air hitting your cool glasses will cause a condensation effect that can fog the lenses. In order to get around this, you should use a well-fitted mask shaped tightly to your nose.

Additionally, there are many disposable masks made for eyewear users that have a special strip on the top to prevent the condensation effect. If you don’t want to spend the extra money on non-fogging masks, then other solutions include taping the top of your mask down so that air cannot escape upward or rubbing soap onto the glass lens. There are several videos online showing different ways to prevent fogging.

Myth: If I am wearing a mask, then I don’t need to practice social distancing.

Fact: Masks alone will not stop the spread of COVID-19 completely — they only aid in preventing transmission. In fact, there is nothing that can prevent the spread completely other than total isolation from others, which is impossible to do. In order to stay safe during the pandemic, the CDC recommends taking multiple steps to ensure your safety.

Practicing good hygiene, like washing your hands frequently, avoiding touching your face and avoiding sharing food and drinks with others is one key aspect. In combination with that, wearing a mask and distancing whenever you’re near somebody not in your quarantine pod are also vital to slowing the spread of COVID-19. All of these factors play a role in keeping the community safe — you can’t just pick and choose one of them to practice. Masks are great at preventing the spread of respiratory droplets, but if you’re in close contact with others, there is still a chance for transmission to occur, which is why distancing is also necessary.

If recommendations from the CDC or the World Health Organization aren’t enough to convince you to wear a mask, think about your older or immunocompromised family members. I understand that it can be uncomfortable and sometimes frustrating to constantly wear masks, but this discomfort is worth it when the alternative could cost other people their lives. This is not a matter of politics or scare tactics or hoaxes — this is the scientific method showing that masking efforts do indeed make a difference, and we should all respect each other by wearing a mask and acting safely.

Elizabeth writes primarily about self-care and pharmacological topics. You can reach her at [email protected].