We are now in the ninth consecutive month of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you're still wearing a face mask regularly, give yourself a pat on the back! Experts agree that this is one of the most crucial measures we can take to stop the spread of this deadly virus.
SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus, is mainly transmitted through respiratory droplets. Coughing, sneezing, and even just talking releases particles that can contain COVID-19. Once these droplets become airborne, they can spread out over long distances. Face masks are one of our main lines of defense against inhaling these particles because they stop them from entering our breathing passageways.
But despite being one of our primary methods of coronavirus protection, face masks have been difficult to accept for some people. Let's explore the main reason why and how this can be solved.
The Main Suspect? Discomfort
In a survey of 60,000 respondents, the majority of them reported discomfort to be the main reason why many people don't don a face mask in public. Survey participants stated that sweating, breathlessness, increased heart rate, and even nausea as common symptoms they feel when wearing a face mask.
If you've experienced any of these symptoms, you're probably eager to find out how you can fix them. Well, first things first: According to lung specialist Christopher Ewing, surgical and cloth face masks do not inhibit oxygen flow or trap substantial amounts of carbon dioxide. Ewing regularly treats pediatric patients contending with cystic fibrosis and asthma. Prior to the pandemic, some of his patients would wear surgical masks in public to avoid life-threatening respiratory illnesses.
With that said, Ewing does say that wearing face masks can still affect your breathing in some unexpected ways. "Most of us aren't used to wearing face masks, and the sensation of having a mask on your face might make someone anxious or uncomfortable," he explains. Basically, even though breathing is an unconscious effort, it can still be influenced by our mental state. Ewing says, "When we're feeling discomfort, even subconsciously, it can change the way we breathe."
Are You Breathing Too Quickly or Slowly?
When we subconsciously change our breathing patterns, we may inadvertently start an abnormal inhaling and exhaling pattern. For example, if you wear glasses, you're probably all too familiar with how they can get fogged up by wearing a face mask. You might try to compensate for this problem by not exhaling completely on your next breath.
Abnormal breathing comes down to two patterns. The first is hyperventilation, which means you're breathing too quickly. On the other side of the equation, we have hypoventilation, which means you're breathing too slowly or too shallow. Both of these dysfunctional breathing patterns can lead to breathlessness or dizziness. And these two symptoms are what people usually mistake for lack of oxygen or a dangerous buildup of carbon dioxide in their masks.
Since wearing a mask makes some people nervous or anxious, they can end up hyperventilating. Key indicators of this are extremely frequent or very deep breaths. Hyperventilation causes a low level of carbon dioxide in your bloodstream because your body is expelling it faster than it can produce it. Besides feelings of lightheadedness and dizziness, this can cause someone to faint.
Do you think you're breathing too slowly or not exhaling as deeply as you should be? You may be experiencing hypoventilation. Conversely to hyperventilation, hypoventilation causes your carbon dioxide level to rise. In turn, this decreases the oxygen in your bloodstream and can lead to feelings of sleepiness and "air hunger," an uncomfortable sensation where you cannot get enough air in your lungs. Unsurprisingly, hypoventilation can also cause anxiety.
How You Can Breathe Better in a Face Mask
If these abnormal breathing patterns make you feel alarmed, don't fret. It's actually easy to override them and free yourself from any of their symptoms. You simply have to reset your natural breathing pattern using "box breathing." This is something that's common in yoga and also used by U.S. Navy Seals.
Also known as "corner breathing," box breathing is a strategy in which a person visualizes four sides of a box. They then mentally trace the outline of the box while inhaling slowly for four seconds, pausing, breathing out completely, then pausing again. Ewing explains, "This method helps us regulate our breathing in a more conscious way, and it also reduces stress and anxiety by activating the parasympathetic nervous system."
Another tactic you can try is belly-breathing. People who often experience irregular breathing patterns may be only using their chests and neck muscles to breathe. Not only is this inefficient, but it's also uncomfortable. To counter it, Ewing recommends that you focus on using your diaphragm (the muscle in between your chest and abdomen) to breathe. This is known as diaphragmatic breathing, and it promotes optimal oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange, a normalized heart rate, and lower blood pressure.
To practice diaphragmatic breathing, place your hand on your diaphragm. It should be just below your rib cage. As you inhale, your diaphragm should push your hand away. As you exhale, your hand should return towards your body.
Face Mask Breathing Takes Practice
While medical experts have confirmed that wearing a face mask doesn't hamper your oxygen flow or increase your carbon dioxide levels, it still takes practice to breathe properly with one on. If you find mask-wearing to be particularly discomforting, try wearing one while doing a distracting activity like watching TV. The goal is to make breathing with a mask second nature. The more you do this, the more you get used to it.
If you're still having trouble breathing properly with a face mask on, consider trying a new one. Besides offering UPF 50 and antimicrobial protection, our face masks and neck gaiters are optimized for comfort. Many of our products come with adjustable nose bridges and earloops while still offering complete nose and chin coverage. We hope this helps!
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