The social attention surrounding the harmful aspects of face covering use is too important to ignore. Of the nearly 400 comments submitted to the Health Department on the face covering mandate, some focused on seemingly legit medical reasons that face coverings can be detrimental to our health.
Some cite headaches, breathing difficulties, and even facial unattractiveness as consequences of face coverings. While we can’t address the point on facial unattractiveness, we can examine the science behind these arguments.
First, let’s explore the differences among face coverings and the side effects of their use.
Types of face coverings
- Respiratory protective devices (RPDs) are specialized equipment that provides respiratory protection from fine particulates, such as dust, smoke, chemicals, and pathogens. They provide the highest level of protection for wearers, form a tight facial fit, and are designed to filter out 95% of airborne particles (i.e., the reason they’re called “N95 masks”). RPDs are ideal for healthcare workers. In fact, the CDC does not recommend use of N95 masks by the general public.
- Surgical masks create a physical barrier between a wearer’s mouth and nose and large particles. This includes respiratory (or any bodily fluid) droplets, sprays, or splashes. Surgical masks are loose-fitting, disposable, and primarily protect others from the respiratory fluids of the wearer.
- Non-medical face coverings include cloth masks and are loose-fitting and porous, allowing air to move freely through the fabric. Similar to surgical masks, cloth face covers are a physical barrier, protecting facial openings from fluid sprays, splashes, or droplets. Cloth masks can be washed and reused and are recommended by the CDC for use by the general public to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
What are their risks?
RPDs (not face coverings) can affect your metabolic rates. Because of the tight fit and high filtration capacity, RPDs can reduce oxygen intake and increase metabolic rates (e.g., breathing rate, heart rate, and blood pressure) of the wearer during strenuous exercise. Headaches can also result from RPD use. Because of this, RPDs are not recommended for use by the general public or those with respiratory, cardiac, or other medical conditions that make breathing difficult. Furthermore, workers should take frequent breaks from N95 use.
Unlike RPDs, cloth face coverings do not limit oxygen flow to the wearer; however, the user may experience increased temperature inside the mask that causes discomfort. If you feel hot in your face covering, isolate and take a break from use.
Face coverings DO NOT increase your risk of infection. This frequent statement stems from a study that compared respiratory infection rates of healthcare workers across different categories of face coverings. The study found that compared to surgical masks, cloth face coverings had a higher incidence of laboratory-confirmed viral infection. The study concluded, “[Healthcare workers] should not use cloth masks as protection against respiratory infection… Cloth masks resulted in significant higher rates of infection than medical masks.”
You touch your face more when wearing a face covering. Face coverings can be uncomfortable at first. They need adjusting, they may itch, and they make your glasses fog. Touching your mask is a hard-to-break habit, and your travel-size sanitizer will come in handy here. Remember to sanitize your hands before putting your mask on, taking it off, or adjusting.
People with respiratory distress or that are too young may have difficulty wearing masks. Hot, humid weather can trigger asthma attacks and face coverings may worsen these conditions. Fresh air breaks, more-breathable fabrics, and face shields are excellent alternatives, if face coverings are too uncomfortable. Children under 2 should avoid wearing face coverings entirely.
This is our first global pandemic in the era of modern science, technology, and social media. In the time of reprints, entertainment news, and social media, misinformation easily circulates and is difficult to correct. Our knowledge of COVID-19 has evolved rapidly, and in six months we’ll know even more.
As that knowledge evolves, so must we. Social distancing and hand-washing are now bylaws, but they have not contained the pandemic. Face coverings are the next logical step and are needed as Gallatin County continues to boom as a tourist destination. Face coverings will take some getting used to, but as people are asymptomatic carriers, preventing the spread of COVID-19 to some could mean life.