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Wearing a facemask does not make it harder to breathe

Wearing a facemask does not interfere with breathing or impair lung function, even during the most strenuous exercise, according to a new study from UC San Diego. The research contradicts the idea that facemasks impair the cardiopulmonary system by making it harder to breathe.

In an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19, facemasks have suddenly become a part of everyday life for most people. The physical barrier created by masks has prompted concerns that they may alter the flow of inhaled oxygen and exhaled carbon dioxide and increase shortness of breath, particularly during physical activity.

The researchers determined that even though it may seem harder to breathe due to increased sensations of dyspnea, there is no significant evidence to show that wearing a facemask diminishes lung function.

Study first author Dr. Susan Hopkins is a professor of Medicine and Radiology at the UC San Diego School of Medicine who specializes in the study of lungs under stress.

“There might be a perceived greater effort with activity, but the effects of wearing a mask on the work of breathing, on gases like oxygen and CO2 in blood, or other physiological parameters are small – often too small to be detected,” said Dr. Hopkins. “There’s also no evidence to support any differences by sex or age in physiological responses to exercise while wearing a facemask.”

According to the researchers, the single exception may be persons with severe cardiopulmonary disease in which any added resistance to breathing or minor changes in blood gases could prompt dyspnea great enough to affect exercise capacity, 

“In such cases, these individuals might feel too uncomfortable to exercise, and that should be discussed with their doctor,” said Dr. Hopkins. “However, the fact that these individuals are at great risk should they contract COVID-19 must also be considered.”

Among healthy individuals, wearing a mask had minimal effects on these physiological markers, regardless of what type of mask was worn or the intensity of exercise.

“Wearing a facemask can be uncomfortable,” said Dr. Hopkins. “There can be tiny increases in breathing resistance. You may re-inhale warmer, slightly enriched CO2 air. And if you’re exercising, the mask can cause your face to become hot and sweaty.”

“But these are sensory perceptions. They do not impact cardiopulmonary function in healthy people. So while dyspnea might be increased with a mask, you have to weigh that against the reduced risk of contracting COVID-19, knowing that the physiology is essentially unchanged.”

The study is published in the journal Annals of the American Thoracic Society.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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