During the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, you’ve probably noticed countless people in public spaces wearing face coverings in a way that leaves their noses uncovered.
It’s understandable that wearing masks and face coverings, although strongly recommended by many medical experts, can be uncomfortable at times. The hot summer weather likely will make it even more uncomfortable.
Nonetheless, proper use of masks and facial coverings—putting them over your mouth AND your nose—is highly encouraged. Covering the nose and mouth is essential as the coronavirus can be unknowingly spread via respiratory droplets when you speak, sneeze, laugh or cough.
“As America gradually loosens restrictions on activities, we are beginning to see new spikes in cases in many states, so it is important that we remain aware of the risk,” says Alexander Chen, MD, FACP, of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore. “Wearing a mask is an important part of controlling the spread of COVID-19. There are many reports that people who are infected can spread the illness even before they feel sick or have a fever. A cloth mask or disposable surgical mask limits the distance that the virus can travel when the wearer breathes, coughs or sneezes.”
Chen adds: “For the mask to be most effective, it should cover both the mouth and nose. Wearing masks may help protect the wearer. However, the main benefit of wearing a mask is to help protect others. Loosening your mask, even just for a moment, is more a risk to other people than the wearer.”
In addition to general discomfort, medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma, emphysema and other lung diseases that normally cause breathing problems can make mask wear more problematic. People with these conditions have a higher risk for serious complications from COVID-19 and thus should avoid crowds.
If you have a serious medical condition and find wearing a mask too uncomfortable, you should try to avoid infection by staying at least six feet away from others and asking friends or family members to run errands for you, Chen says. If you must go out and you struggle to breathe through your mask or facial covering at some point, you may need to loosen or remove it briefly. “First, stop any activity you are doing to see if you can breathe easier. Try to leave the crowd. Before touching your mask or face, try to make sure your hands are clean,” Chen says.
Adds Janice Rey, BS. MT(ASCP), CIC, director of infection prevention and control at LifeBridge Health: “Move away from others as best you can before removing the face mask or face covering. Keeping space between you and others is one of the best tools we have to avoid being exposed to this virus and slowing its spread.”
Indoors or outdoors?
Medical experts are still learning about COVID-19 and which masks offer the best protection. However, experts say it is most important to wear a mask while indoors, such as when you’re at work or inside a store.
“We know that COVID-19 spreads easily indoors, but we still don’t know much yet about the risk of spread outdoors,” Chen says. “The general rule of staying six feet apart is still a good idea when possible. It is necessary to wear a mask while outdoors if you will be less than six feet apart.”
Chen adds: “It’s very difficult to wear a mask when running or exercising vigorously, so those activities should be done in uncrowded areas.”
Instead of tight-fitting N95 masks, wear disposable, loose-fitting surgical masks or face coverings for normal, everyday activities. “N95 masks are only needed in high-risk situations, such as caring for a patient who is infected,” Chen says.