Do Face Masks Restrict Airflow? | Loyola Medicine
Friday, November 13, 2020

Do Face Masks Restrict Airflow?

Loyola Medicine pulmonologist says most masks do not restrict airflow and are critical to limiting COVID-19 transmission

Woman putting mask on

MAYWOOD, IL – During the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continue to recommend that everyone wear a mask in public, or any place where there are other people, to minimize the transmission of COVID-19. Nevertheless, is it safe to wear a mask for a prolonged period of time?  Can a mask restrict oxygen intake or cause a buildup of carbon dioxide?

“As a pulmonologist, I can assure you that for most people wearing a mask is safe,” said Daniel F. Dilling, MD, Loyola University Medical Center pulmonologist and critical care medicine specialist. “I wear a mask every day. Most masks do not limit the amount of air that you breathe in, nor decrease your body’s ability to fight COVID-19.

“Most importantly, masks work,” said Dr. Dilling, who is featured in the new Loyola Medicine video, “Coronavirus (COVID-19): Do Face Masks Restrict Air Flow?”

“COVID-19 is known to spread person-to-person, primarily via saliva droplets or spray. A mask limits the amount of coronavirus droplets transmitted by you, and protects you from the virus entering your nose or mouth.”

According to the American Lung Association, even a 50% reduction in viral transmission can minimize disease exposure and the potential for severe symptoms. This is especially important as not everyone who has COVID-19 looks or sounds sick; many are asymptomatic.

What type of mask is best?

Cloth masks are very effective if they have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric; completely cover the nose and mouth; and fit snuggly against the side of the face without gaps, according to the CDC.

The American Lung Association says that a fabric mask should not be so thick that it is uncomfortable to breathe. Filter inserts are probably not necessary.

Disposal, paper masks (surgical masks) are also effective in “in reducing respiratory droplet spread,” said Dr. Dilling.

Surgical masks can be worn once or twice before disposal. Cloth masks should be washed “on a regular basis,” said Dr. Dilling.

Who should not wear a mask?

The CDC does not recommend masks for children under the age of 2, “or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

A mask can be worn “when walking on an indoor track or when doing stretching or low-intensity forms of yoga indoors,” according to the CDC; however, wearing a mask while running or doing other high-intensity exercise or physical activity may limit airflow. If possible, these activities should be done outdoors while social distancing.

In addition, the CDC does not recommend that the public wear N-95 masks, which are intended for health care workers. There is also evidence that the prolonged wearing of these masks by individuals with preexisting lung conditions may cause a buildup of carbon dioxide. 

“Masks with an exhalation valve or vents also are not recommended as they allow air and respiratory particles to escape, putting those around you at risk,” said Dr. Dilling.

“You don’t always know when someone is infected with COVID-19 coronavirus,” said Dr. Dilling. “Correctly wearing an appropriate mask that covers your nose and mouth helps to decrease the spread and impact of COVID-19. It protects you and those around you from catching and experiencing severe symptoms from this potentially deadly disease.”

About Loyola Medicine and Trinity Health

Loyola Medicine, a member of Trinity Health, is a quaternary care system based in the western suburbs of Chicago that includes Loyola University Medical Center (LUMC), Gottlieb Memorial Hospital, MacNeal Hospital and convenient locations offering primary and specialty care services from 1,877 physicians throughout Cook, Will and DuPage counties. LUMC is a 547-licensed-bed hospital in Maywood that includes the William G. and Mary A. Ryan Center for Heart & Vascular Medicine, the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center, a Level 1 trauma center, Illinois's largest burn center, a certified comprehensive stroke center and a children’s hospital. Having delivered compassionate care for over 50 years, Loyola also trains the next generation of caregivers through its teaching affiliation with Loyola University Chicago’s Stritch School of Medicine and Marcella Niehoff School of Nursing. Gottlieb is a 247-licensed-bed community hospital in Melrose Park with 150 physician offices, an adult day care program, the Gottlieb Center for Fitness, the Loyola Center for Metabolic Surgery and Bariatric Care and the Loyola Cancer Care & Research at the Marjorie G. Weinberg Cancer Center at Melrose Park. MacNeal Hospital is a 374-bed teaching hospital in Berwyn with advanced inpatient and outpatient medical, surgical and psychiatric services, advanced diagnostics and treatments. MacNeal has a 12-bed acute rehabilitation unit, a 25-bed inpatient skilled nursing facility, and a 68-bed behavioral health program and community clinics. MacNeal has provided quality, patient-centered care to the near west suburbs since 1919.

Trinity Health is one of the largest multi-institutional Catholic healthcare systems in the nation, serving diverse communities that include more than 30 million people across 22 states. Trinity Health includes 92 hospitals, as well as 109 continuing care locations that include PACE programs, senior living facilities and home care and hospice services. Its continuing care programs provide nearly 2.5 million visits annually. Based in Livonia, Mich., and with annual operating revenues of $18.3 billion and assets of $26.2 billion, the organization returns $1.1 billion to its communities annually in the form of charity care and other community benefit programs. Trinity employs about 129,000 colleagues, including 7,800 employed physicians and clinicians. Committed to those who are poor and underserved in its communities, Trinity is known for its focus on the country's aging population. As a single, unified ministry, the organization is the innovator of Senior Emergency Departments, the largest not-for-profit provider of home health care services—ranked by number of visits—in the nation, as well as the nation’s leading provider of PACE (Program of All Inclusive Care for the Elderly) based on the number of available programs.