Mask-wearing is uncomfortable for just about everyone, but people with COPD and other breathing disorders have more reason than most to complain. Having a serious respiratory disease can legitimately make breathing through a face mask more difficult, even though face coverings are not actually dangerous for people with COPD (as most doctors agree).
Unfortunately, masks have become an unavoidable feature of daily life in many places, as they are a central part of the public health efforts to control the spread of COVID-19. This has left many people with COPD wondering how to cope with the discomfort of mask-wearing and, in some cases, even looking for exceptions or alternative solutions to wearing a mask.
That's why we created this guide to address the logistics of masking for people with COPD. In it, you'll find a variety of practical strategies you can use to not only make wearing a mask more tolerable so you can enjoy outings and other activities without feeling breathless and fatigued.
Throughout this guide you'll find tips for coping with a variety of situations, including those that tend to be especially challenging for people with COPD (e.g. hot weather, prolonged masked outings, and using supplemental oxygen while wearing a mask). We'll also dissect the pros and cons of different kinds of masks, and how to choose one that is both effective and easy to breathe in with COPD.
Face Masks & COPD: What Every COPD Patient Should Know
We know that many people with respiratory diseases like COPD have questions and concerns about how wearing a mask affects their health and their breathing. Here are a few of the most common ones that you might have heard before or worried about yourself:
- Is it safe for people with chronic respiratory diseases like COPD to wear a mask?
- Can wearing a mask impair your breathing or reduce how much oxygen you get when you breathe?
- Can people with COPD and other serious respiratory disease get exempted from having to wear a mask?
So before we jump right into the “survival strategies” portion of this guide, we'd like to take a moment to address these and other common questions that people have about masking & COPD. If you'd like to skip ahead, you can click the following links to go straight to the sections on Choosing a Mask for COPD or Tips & Tricks for Making a Mask More Bearable.
Is it Safe to Wear a Mask if You Have COPD?
Despite the fact that wearing a mask can cause a great deal of discomfort, it's important to know that they're not actually dangerous for your health. In fact, some of the largest COPD & lung disease organizations in the US have gone out of their way to reassure patients that wearing a face covering is not only safe, but also important for people with COPD and other chronic lung diseases.
Organizations endorsing the safety of masking for COPD patients include:
- The COPD Foundation
- The American Lung Association
- The American Thoracic Society
- The American College of Chest Physician
It's important to note that the list above is far from comprehensive; a large number of healthcare networks and medical organizations across the country have endorsed masking as a means to reduce virus transmission.
Can Wearing a Mask Impair Breathing?
Since the advent of mask mandates, many people—especially people with respiratory diseases—have been concerned that wearing a face mask might impair their ability to breathe. Some have even claimed that wearing a mask can reduce blood oxygen levels or cause too much carbon dioxide to get absorbed into the blood.
The good news is that these concerns are unfounded; studies consistently show that face masks don't impair breathing—and that holds true for healthy adults, older adults, and people with chronic lung diseases (including COPD).
That's because both oxygen and carbon dioxide can pass through masks very easily; the molecules are many times smaller than the respiratory droplets that masks are meant to block. This means that breathing in a mask won't cause carbon dioxide to get trapped inside it, nor will it block oxygen from getting in.
This is confirmed by multiple studies that measured healthy participants' blood oxygen and carbon dioxide saturation while wearing a mask. These studies find that wearing a mask affects blood levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen minimally, if at all (even during exercise), and report a near-zero risk of any significant breathing impairment for the general population.
Studies on people with COPD, including those with severe lung impairment, show similar results. One study, for instance, found that COPD patients wearing masks experienced no significant decrease in oxygen levels (and no significant increase in carbon dioxide levels) both at rest and during physical activity.
One exception to this is N95 masks. Though they are very effective at preventing virus transmission, N95 masks create a lot more airflow resistance than a typical cloth or surgical mask.
Of course, this isn't a concern for the vast majority of people since N96 masks are meant for healthcare workers and are not recommended for general public use. As we discussed above, a regular cloth or surgical mask will not impair your breathing even if you have COPD or another serious respiratory disease.
If you'd like to learn more about research on mask safety and efficacy, check out this comprehensive analysis from the Scientific Advisory Group (PDF link).
Why is Wearing a Mask So Uncomfortable for People with COPD?
|Image from Правительство Москвы on Wikipedia.|
As we discussed in the section above, many studies have confirmed that masks do not actually impair your breathing. But that doesn't explain why wearing a mask can make you feel like it's harder to breathe.
To understand why that is, you have to know a few things about the mechanics of breathing; namely, that breathlessness is a sensation that can be triggered by a variety of different factors, some of which have nothing to do with how much oxygen you're getting or how well you can breathe.
One of these factors is airflow resistance, which affects how much effort it takes to pull air into your lungs when you breathe. Slight changes in airflow resistance (e.g. from breathing through a mask) can trigger feelings of anxiety and breathlessness even if nothing is actually impairing your ability to breathe.
This is a normal physiological reaction to airflow resistance that—in and of itself—isn't a cause for serious concern. It's essentially your body's way of alerting you in case you're actually suffocating; it just tends to be very sensitive, which can lead to false alarms.
So while it's important to pay close attention to your symptoms when you have COPD, it's also important to remember that shortness of breath is just a feeling and that it can have a totally benign cause. So even if the airflow resistance from wearing a mask might make you feel uncomfortable and breathless, you can confidently reassure yourself that it doesn't pose an actual risk to your health.
Can You Be Exempted from Mask Requirements if you Have COPD?
The short answer to this is a conditional yes; the CDC has acknowledged that people with disabilities that make it difficult to breathe in a mask (which could include some people who are disabled because of their COPD) may be exempted from wearing a mask. However, this isn't a blanket excuse for all COPD patients to forego mask-wearing; it just means that some COPD patients in some situations should get exemptions—not that all people with COPD should choose to not wear masks.
In fact, doctors strongly urge all COPD patients to wear a mask if they are able to, since people with COPD are more vulnerable than most to severe complications and death from COVID-19. As researchers wrote in an article published in the European Respiratory Journal, “Relieving respiratory patients from the obligation to wear masks could be highly deleterious for them, since by definition those patients with respiratory conditions who cannot tolerate face masks are at higher risk of severe COVID-19.”
Other medical professionals agree that everyone should wear a mask, regardless of medical condition, since masks have “no effect on respiratory mechanics.” As one doctor put it, “I believe that most people need education on proper use rather than exemption,” including fragile respiratory patients.
If you have COPD, you should be taking every reasonable precaution you can manage to avoid getting sick, including wearing a mask in situations where you're at risk of being exposed to other people's germs. This is especially important if not yet been fully vaccinated, or if you belong to a group for which the vaccine is known to be less effective (e.g. if you are an immunocompromised person or over the age of 65).
You should also keep an eye on your local and national health recommendations, which provide up-to-date guidance on masking and other COVID-prevention measures for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals.
Unless your doctor advises against it or you absolutely cannot tolerate it because of your respiratory symptoms, the benefits of masking are likely to far outweigh any discomfort you might feel. However, that's not to say that the discomfort of wearing a mask is trivial; we don't want to downplay how absolutely miserable it can be.
That's why we're going to spend the rest of this post exploring a variety of different strategies you can use to minimize that discomfort and be able to wear a mask without feeling breathless or fatigued.
Choosing the Right Mask for COPD
|Image from Sciencia58 on Wikipedia.|
The most important factor in mask-wearing comfort is the face covering itself. While this might seem like a no-brainer, finding a mask that fits right, works right, and doesn't create too much resistance when you breathe can be a difficult task.
Unfortunately, a lot of people wear uncomfortable masks that they don't like because they don't realize there are better options out there. But if you take some time to research (and even try out) different types of face coverings, you might be surprised at how much more comfortable the “right” mask can be.
Here are some of the main criteria you should consider when choosing a mask:
Most face coverings are made up of multiple layers of fabric sewn together, a characteristic often referred to as the material's “ply.” A “three-ply” mask, for example, has three layers of fabric, while a “one-ply” mask has only one.
The number of layers your mask has will effect not only how well it filters out germs but also how comfortable it is to breathe in. The CDC recommends wearing a mask made of at least 2-ply fabric, which is a good middle ground between masks that are less effective (1-ply) and masks that create a lot of resistance when you breathe (e.g. 3-ply and up).
|Photo by Direct Media on StockSnap|
How a mask fits on your face affects not only how comfortable it is to wear, but also how well it works at protecting you from germs. Unfortunately, many people wear masks incorrectly, increasing their risk of being exposed to other people's germs.
A well-fitting mask is one that fits snugly—but not too tightly—with all the edges sitting flat against your face. A mask that's too loose won't filter air correctly, while a mask that's too tight can be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time.
Ideally, your mask should also have nose wire to help the mask fit around the curve of your nose without leaving gaps. The goal is to make sure you don't leave any space between the mask and your face that will allow unfiltered air to slip through.
You can help a loose-fitting surgical mask fit better by wearing a cloth mask over the top to hold it snug against your face. However, this method creates extra airflow resistance that might make it too uncomfortable for people with COPD and other respiratory diseases.
If you have a mask that fits too loose, you can always tie a knot in the ear loops to shorten them in a pinch. You can also get masks that that tie around the back of your head, which not only makes them conveniently size-adjustable but also reduces ear soreness (a common complaint about masks that cling to your ears).
Material & Mask Type
The material your mask is made of helps determine not only how effective it is, but also how comfortable it is to wear and breathe in. There are many different types of mask materials, but the types of masks recommended by the CDC for public use generally fall into one of two main types: cloth masks and surgical masks.
Reusable Cloth masks
|Image from Scientif38 on Wikipedia.|
Cloth masks are face coverings made from one or more pieces of woven fabric sewn together. The type of fabric varies, though most are made from cotton, polyester, and other fabrics commonly used in clothing.
Studies show that different types of cloth masks vary in how well they filter out germs (or, to be more precise, respiratory droplets that carry germs). However, this has less to do with what kind of fabric the mask is made of than how tightly woven that fabric is.
Fabric that's too light (e.g. mesh or see-through) doesn't make a very good filter, while fabric that is too dense can create too much resistance when you breathe. Unfortunately, finding a cloth mask that's both comfortable and effective is always balancing act: you want a mask that's dense enough to block as many droplets as possible while still being light enough to allow air to pass easily through.
Here are additional recommendations from the CDC regarding cloth mask materials:
- The mask should be made from a washable material (so it's easy to clean between uses)
- The mask should not be see-through (if you hold it up to a bright light source, the fabric should be woven tightly enough to block the light from shining through)
- The mask should not have holes, gaps, valves, or any other opening in the fabric that would allow air to go in or out without being filtered through the mask material first
Another important characteristic to consider when choosing a cloth mask is the “feel” of the mask material against your face. You want a mask made from a flexible, soft, high-thread-count fabric that doesn't cause any itching or irritation on your skin.
You might need to try out a few different types of masks before you find a design and material that works for you. You can also look for recommendations online by searching for “breathable” masks and reading reviews written by other people with respiratory diseases.
Disposable Surgical Masks
Surgical masks are made up of a special type non-woven fabric made from plastic (often polypropylene). This type of fabric makes a good face covering because it is acts as a decent filter while still letting air through relatively easily when you breathe.
Because of this, many people find surgical masks easier to breathe in compared to the relatively-heavy fabric required for cloth masks to be effective. Surgical masks also tend to be somewhat moisture-resistant, which helps them not get damp as quickly from the moisture in your breath.
There are several different types of surgical masks rated for different medical purposes as well as generic, non-medical “surgical masks” you can find at many stores. For the general purpose of protecting yourself when you're around other people and out in public, minimum protection surgical masks & most generic versions should work just fine.
You should, however, make sure that whatever surgical mask you choose is made from at least 2-ply fabric and has a nose wire at the top. Like all masks, your surgical mask should fit snug and comfortably on your face without leaving any gaps for unfiltered air to get through.
Cloth Masks vs Surgical Masks: Which One Should You Use?
|Image from Paju~commonswiki on Wikipedia.|
Cloth masks and surgical masks are both approved by the CDC, so which type you choose to use is ultimately up to you. Both have their own benefits and drawbacks, and some might be better suited to certain people or situations.
One of the biggest benefits of cloth masks is that they are re-usable, which makes them very cost effective over time. However, washing cloth masks can be very inconvenient, especially when you need a fresh one every day.
Surgical masks, on the other hand, are single-use, which is very convenient; they're very low-maintenance and all you have to do is thrown them away after use. However, this also means that you have to keep buying new ones, which can get expensive and create a lot of extra waste.
It's also worth mentioning that some studies indicate that cloth masks don't work quite as well as surgical masks at filtering out the respiratory droplets that carry germs. However, even if they are somewhat less effective, experts agree that multi-layer cloth masks still offer a worthwhile amount of protection and remain an important tool in combating the spread of disease.
Many people use a combination of cloth and surgical masks, both separately and/or at the same time. For example, you might want to wear a cloth mask over a surgical mask for extra protection, or keep a box of surgical masks around just in case there's a time that you can't find a clean cloth mask to wear.
Tips & Tricks to Make Wearing a Mask More Bearable if You Have COPD
Now that we've covered the basics of how to choose a breathable mask, we'd like to share some additional tips that can make wearing that mask even more comfortable if you have COPD. In the following sections, you'll find more than a dozen practical strategies that can help take the edge off mask-wearing and help you avoid feeling anxious or breathless when you have to wear a mask.
Take Time to Rest
It's not fun to feel tired and short of breath when you go out to do something fun, which is why avoiding over-exertion is a common concern for many people with COPD. Unfortunately, for those who struggle with mask-wearing, it can be even harder to manage breathlessness and other COPD symptoms while wearing a mask.
Pay close attention to how you feel when you're out and about so you can catch the breathlessness early and take the time you need to rest. If you're out with other people, don't be afraid to excuse yourself for a few minutes or let them know when you need to slow down or take a break.
Take Mask Breaks
Many people with COPD and other respiratory diseases struggle with wearing a mask for extended, unbroken periods of time. Some find it so unbearable that they avoid all activities that require extended mask-wearing, causing them to miss social gatherings, weddings, and other important events.
But long events don't usually mean you can never take your mask off; in most situations, you can always find a way to take a “mask break.” You just have to be strategic and keep your eye out for opportunities where you can step aside and find a place to—safely and respectfully—take off your mask.
Unfortunately, most events and activities aren't planned with the need for mask breaks in mind, which means, in many cases, you'll have to make the opportunity on your own. Here are a few examples of how that might work:
- Excuse yourself for a few minutes to step outside for some fresh air.
- At an outdoor event, find a comfortable spot away from the group that you can retreat to whenever you feel like you need a break from wearing your mask.
- If you drove your care to the event, you can always walk back to your car for a private mask break.
- If no safer options are available, try to find a quiet corner or another place away from other people—the farther away the better (of course, this will only work in places where masks are not required or mandated).
If you can find a way to take short breaks at regular intervals (e.g. every 30 minutes or so), you might find it possible to manage wearing a mask for longer periods of time. Even though it might seem inconvenient or disruptive, it's better than the alternatives of being miserable or not being able to participate at all.
Depending on the situation, you might even be able to work mask breaks into your schedule ahead of time. It's best to think ahead and take action before the situation gets urgent; that way you'll have plenty of time to step aside and find a suitable place.
Focus on Calm: Be Aware of Conscious or Subconscious Anxiety
Many people, especially people with respiratory diseases, understandably have anxiety about feeling breathless. This makes some people extra sensitive to anything that covers their face or affects their breathing (including the slight—and ultimately harmless—airflow resistance caused by wearing a mask).
It's important to note that this mask anxiety can take many forms, including both obvious and subtle physical and psychological symptoms. You might find, for example, that wearing a mask makes your feel claustrophobic or panicked, or you might experience physical symptoms like chest tightness, increased heart rate, sweating, or shortness of breath.
These symptoms can make you feel like you can't breathe very well even if the mask isn't restricting your breathing at all. Fortunately, understanding anxiety can lessen its intensity and give you the opportunity to address it in a productive way.
The first step is learning to recognize mask anxiety if you have it; this can be tricky since the symptoms might not be obvious, or you might not realize that they are caused by wearing a mask. It's also important to note that you don't have to feel noticeably anxious to have a anxious physiological response to wearing a mask.
If you think you might be suffering from mask anxiety, there are plenty of strategies you can use to cope. Breathing exercises, for example, can help calm anxious feelings and sensations while also helping you manage your breathing and avoid shortness of breath.
Of course, there are plenty of other healthy strategies for coping with breathing and COPD-related anxiety, some of which we've discussed in the guides listed below.
If none of the strategies in this guide or elsewhere work out, or you're having trouble getting started on your own, you might want to consider seeking guidance from a professional. You might even be able to find a good therapist that specializes in health anxiety or coping with chronic disease.
Get Practice at Home (Start Small)
One of the things that makes wearing a mask so uncomfortable is that most people just aren't acclimated to it yet. Luckily, the solution to that is easy: get some practice and work up to it a little bit at a time.
Start with wearing your mask at home for short periods of time (however much you can tolerate easily) while watching TV or other resting activities. This gives you the opportunity to get used to mask-wearing in a place where you feel comfortable and can remove your mask at any time.
Once you get used to that, add a little more time, then a little more, until you feel comfortable wearing your mask for longer stretches. Then you can practice wearing a mask during different activities like walking or exercising until you feel confident in your ability to do those things outside the house.
Practicing at home might even help reduce any anxiety—conscious or subconscious—that could be contributing to the breathlessness you feel when wearing a mask. It's also an opportunity to suss out logistical problems, like if you have trouble getting your mask on and off or getting it positioned comfortably on your face.
It's particularly important to sort out your mask-wearing technique ahead of time if you use supplemental oxygen therapy. Making your mask work (and work comfortably) in concert with the rest of your oxygen equipment can be tricky, and you don't want to get stuck figuring it out last-minute in a public place.
But don't worry, we'll give you some great tips for how to wear a mask while using supplemental oxygen in the section just below!
Masks & Oxygen Therapy: How to Make it Work
Wearing a mask at the same time as you're using supplemental oxygen can be a tricky and inconvenient task (as if using supplemental oxygen in public wasn't already a hassle!). But it's certainly not impossible to do it, and it can even be comfortable if you use the right technique.
But first, you might be wondering: is there even a point to wearing a mask if I'm breathing filtered air from my oxygen supply? The answer is yes, and that's for a couple of different reasons.
First of all, even when you're using oxygen, chances are you're still going to be breathing in at least some outside air. This is especially true if you use a nasal cannula instead of an oxygen mask that covers both your mouth and nose.
Second, wearing a mask helps block your respiratory droplets from escaping (and potentially reaching other people around you) when you cough or exhale. This is even more important for people using high-flow oxygen via a nasal cannula, which many experts believe can cause your respiratory particles to spread even more.
Third, some research indicates that wearing a mask over your nasal cannula might actually be beneficial. One study, for example, found that patients admitted to a hospital for respiratory failure associated with low blood oxygen saturation experienced a significant improvement in thier oxygen levels while while wearing a surgical mask.
Pin Everything in Place
|Image from Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr.|
One of the things that can make oxygen therapy uncomfortable is the amount of tubing and other equipment you have to manage and lug around. When you add wearing a mask on top of all that clutter, it can make you feel even more claustrophobic and uncomfortable, especially when you're out and about.
But if you can keep all your oxygen equipment bundled and out of the way, wearing a mask might not seem so difficult to bear. Luckily, there are plenty of tried-and-true strategies for securing your oxygen tubing, organizing your equipment, and reducing the amount of overall fussing needed to keep everything comfortably in place.
These include using clips to keep your oxygen tubing from snagging or shifting, and using DIY fabric covers to reduce irritation on your skin (particularly your ears and face). You can find more info on these tips as well as many more in this guide from our respiratory resource center.
Keep Safety in Mind
|Image from unduhlogo.com.|
If you're a seasoned oxygen user, you probably already know about the safety risks, which include an increased risk of fire if too much oxygen builds up in one place. In some rare cases (PDF link), people have been injured or killed by fires sparked in part by leaks or pockets of concentrated oxygen near their face.
Because of this, you should be careful about avoiding sparks and other fire hazards when you're using oxygen—especially when you're wearing a mask. Experts also recommend avoiding flammable oil-based products (including petroleum jelly and oil-based lotions and lip balms) on your face while using oxygen therapy.
You should also be diligent about hygiene while you're using supplemental oxygen in public. Avoid touching the outside of your mask or fussing with your equipment (except when necessary), and make sure to wash your hands frequently (especially before and after handling your oxygen equipment or mask).
Don't Forget Your Rescue Inhaler
If you've been prescribed as as-needed, quick-acting rescue inhaler, you should keep it with you at all times. It's your main defense against stubborn bouts of breathlessness, which, if you're very sensitive to mask-wearing, might be more likely to happen while you're wearing a mask.
That's why it's important to bring your rescue inhaler with you every time you leave your home, especially if you know you're going to be wearing a mask. This can help you feel more safe and less anxious about mask-wearing, since you'll know you have a powerful tool to help you manage your symptoms even if you find yourself feeling breathless because of your mask.
Beware of Mask Dampness
Some people notice that sometimes their mask gets damp and harder to breathe in the longer they wear it. This is often the result of the mask absorbing the moisture in from their breath as they exhale over time.
Damp masks are harder to breathe through because the water absorbed in the fabric blocks air from getting through. Damp masks can also be less effective because, if air can't get through the fabric, unfiltered air will come in around the sides of the mask when you breathe instead.
In general, the longer you wear a mask the more moisture it absorbs, though it's likely to happen quicker in especially cold, hot, or humid weather. Pretty much all kinds of masks are susceptible, though masks made of cotton fabric and plastic-based fabrics might fare better in damp conditions compared to masks made from synthetic fabrics or paper-based surgical masks.
Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot you can do to prevent your mask from getting damp. All you can really do is switch to a fresh, dry mask when it does. Fortunately, the solution is simple, and brings us to the next tip on our list: always be prepared with an extra mask or two.
Always Bring Extras
|Image from nursetogether.com.|
Whenever you leave the house to do an activity that requires wearing a mask, you should always bring a couple extras along. This is a smart idea for a lot of reasons; there's an endless list of things that could go wrong and cause you to need a new mask.
A strap on your mask could break, for example, you could accidentally get it dirty, or it could get wet (from a sneeze, a spilled drink, or even just your breath). There's also the possibility that you could drop, misplace, or lose your mask by accident while you're out and about.
When something like that happens, you don't want to be caught unprepared, which is why you should keep a couple spares with you at all times. You might even want to keep a few stashes in convenient places such as your car, your work desk, and your wallet or purse.
Having spares on hand might even help you feel more comfortable going out in public where you need to wear a mask. It's comforting to know you've got back-ups in case your mask gets too damp to breathe in or any other mask-related problems come along.
Keep it Snug–But Not Too Tight!
If you've ever experienced a headache after wearing a mask for a couple hours, you're definitely not alone. Headaches are one of the most common discomforts associated with mask-wearing, and it can feel especially unpleasant on top of the already-uncomfortable symptoms of COPD.
These kinds of headaches are usually caused by wearing a mask that's too tight around your head or ears. Luckily, that means you can reduce your risk of getting a headache significantly just by wearing a well-fitting mask or adjusting your mask straps until it fits you just right (we'll talk more about how to adjust your mask straps and reduce the amount of pressure and pulling on your ears in the section below).
Headaches can also be caused by hunger or dehydration, which can happen if your normal eating and drinking patterns get disrupted by having to wear a mask. That's why it's important to take breaks to drink and eat when you need them, especially if you have to wear a mask for several hours or more.
Take The Pressure Off Your Ears
Most masks are designed to hold onto your face with ear loops, the little elastic straps that fit over your ears. This usually isn't bothersome at first, but anyone who's had to wear this type of mask for long periods knows that the ear loops can get very uncomfortable over time.
In fact, skin chaffing and ear soreness from the constant tug of ear loops are some of the most common complaints that people have about wearing a mask. Fortunately, you can avoid these problems with some inexpensive gadgets or simply using a different type of mask.
First, you could get a mask with ties instead of ear loops; these have longer straps that tie around your head. The downside is that this type of mask takes a little more time and effort to put on and (depending on your clothing, hair, & accessories) the straps can get in the way.
Another option is to anchor your mask's ear loops to something else besides your ears, for example, a button affixed to a headband or hat. You can also get buttoned “ear saver” straps that connect the ear loops together to make one long strap that fits across the back of your head.
|Image from Lerato Maduna published by University of Cape Town News.|
Use Skincare & Beauty Products Wisely
Some people find that wearing a mask irritates the skin on their face, causing chaffing, irritation, and even acne breakouts (giving rise to the term “maskne”). This might be more likely to happen if you wear make-up, have sensitive skin, or have to wear a mask for long periods of time multiple days in a row.
Some moisturizers and creams can help reduce mask-related skin irritation, while others might just make it worse. For example, a gentle face moisturizer can help reduce mask abrasion, but the wrong kind of product can hold in too much moisture under your mask, worsening acne and irritation.
So, if your skin is sensitive to mask-wearing, it might help to make some changes to your make-up and/or skin-care routine. And while it's best to get advice from a trusted dermatologist, here's a few tips that you might want to try:
- Wash your face more often, especially after wearing a mask.
- Wash your cloth face mask(s) often, and switch to a fresh, clean mask every day.
- Use anti-microbial products (e.g. face wash and/or lotion) to treat mask-related acne.
- Avoid wearing makeup around or underneath your mask.
- Use a gentle, noncomedogenic (non-pore-clogging) facial moisturizer; you might need to try out a few different types before you find the right one for your skin type.
- Avoid harsh or products like chemical peels, exfoliants, and retinoids, which can irritate your skin.
- If you use supplemental oxygen, avoid using petroleum-based products (which includes many lotions and lip balms), which can increase your risk of burns and fire-related accidents while using oxygen.
Avoid Unfriendly Weather & Air Quality Conditions
If you find wearing a mask difficult or uncomfortable, then hot and/or humid weather is likely to make it much worse. This is especially true for people with COPD, who tend to experience worse respiratory symptoms when exposed to excessive humidity and heat.
Poor air quality is another major COPD trigger that could make it more difficult to breathe while wearing a mask. That's why experts recommend that people with chronic respiratory diseases check their local air quality daily and avoid spending too much time outside on high-pollution days.
The good news is that regular old cloth masks offer at least a little protection from air pollution. While the effect is only marginal, it might help you feel a little better about having to wear a mask on hot summer days.
And once winter comes along, you might find that wearing a mask makes it easier to breathe by adding extra warmth and humidity to cold, dry winter air. To learn more about how air pollution affects people with COPD, or how to manage your COPD symptoms in adverse weather conditions, check out the following guides from our Respiratory Resource Center:
- The Complete Guide to Managing COPD During the Winter
- COPD, Wildfires, and Outdoor Air Pollution: What Every COPD Patient Should Know
- 25 Tips to Help You Breathe Easier During the Summer
Know Your Limits
Living with a chronic respiratory disease can make a lot of things in life more difficult, and the changes brought about by the COVID pandemic (including mask requirements) certainly don't help. That's why it's important to plan ahead for masked outings and to be realistic about how much masked activity you can handle.
It can be tempting to test your limits, especially when you (like most of us) are yearning for opportunities to socialize and get out of your house. But while it's important to make an effort to do the things that make you happy, it's also important to consider carefully what you can—and should—push yourself to do.
This is especially true for people with COPD and other respiratory diseases, for whom it is common for symptoms to vary from day to day. If you have a masked outing planned, make sure you take stock of your energy level, breathing symptoms, and general physical symptoms before you go.
And while we hope that the tips in this guide can help you gain the comfort and confidence you need to tolerate wearing a mask better, it's okay to acknowledge your limitations too. Sometimes, conserving your energy is the best way to make sure you get the opportunity to be a part of the events and activities you love the most.
Living with COPD is a challenge in any year, but these past years of the pandemic have made life significantly more difficult for people living with chronic respiratory conditions like COPD. But even though staying safe and healthy around other people isn't as easy as it used to be, wearing a mask doesn't have to be a source of dread or pain.
If you have COPD, wearing a mask might never feel totally easy or comfortable. But masking around others can be much more tolerable—and much less stressful—when you have a toolkit full of strategies for managing any discomfort and breathlessness that occurs.
Unfortunately, as the pandemic continues across the US, it appears that mask mandates and recommendations aren't going to disappear completely anytime soon. But with some patience, preparation, and a practical plan to guide you, the idea of masking up might not feel quite so dreadful anymore.