Along with social distancing, wearing a face mask is a critical component in reducing the spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, masks may make it more difficult to breathe. Some people even fear they'll lead to hypercapnia, or too much carbon dioxide (CO2) in the bloodstream, as a result.
To help quell your mask-related fears, we broke down how masks may affect oxygen and carbon dioxide levels and rounded up expert-approved tips for supporting your lungs.
How might masks affect breathing?
"Our lungs allow for the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is essential for the body to function," physician Robert Graham, M.D., MPH, FACP, says.
Because masks cover the nose and mouth, they may make breathing difficult, says human performance coach and New York Timesbestselling author Brian MacKenzie. In an Instagram post, he writes that masks may even trap carbon dioxide, which could be dangerous for people who are CO2 intolerant. "CO2 intolerant means we don't use our lungs as much and do not use O2 optimally," MacKenzie tells mindbodygreen.
According to one study, symptoms of CO2 retention (hypercapnia) may include rapid heartbeat (tachycardia), shortness of breath (dyspnea), flushed skin, confusion, headaches, and dizziness.
Unless your mask is tightfitting and used for a prolonged period of time, though, there is little risk of becoming hypercapnic. "For most people, wearing cloth or surgical masks puts them in little to no danger of breathing in unhealthy amounts of carbon dioxide," Graham says.
That said, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with CO2 retention, Graham suggests taking off your mask while social distancing and breathing deeply.
While breathing in fresh oxygen is a critical solution, it's still a short-term fix. "[Oxygen] cannot work without CO2, and the better we control our breathing—say spending most of the time nasal-only breathing—the better we develop a tolerance to CO2," MacKenzie tells mbg.
To help you strengthen your lungs over time and increase your tolerance to carbon dioxide, these four tips could help.
"[Exercise] raises carbon dioxide, which is why we breathe more when we exercise," MacKenzie says.
1. Count how long your natural breath, in and out, takes.
2. Slowly add one more count to every inhale and exhale.
3. Do this until you can comfortably extend the time it takes to fill and empty your lungs.
3. Improve your posture
4. Stay hydrated
Breathing in excessive carbon dioxide is dangerous, Graham tells us, especially for people with preexisting respiratory conditions. However, the risk of becoming hypercapnic from appropriately fitting cloth masks is low.
If you do notice dizziness, fatigue, or other symptoms of hypercapnia from prolonged use, separate from others, remove your mask, and breathe in fresh air.
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