How to Breathe Better With a Mask

A respiratory therapist offers tips to breathe easier this summer.

Senior woman removing a face mask.

The idea of wearing a face mask during the long, hot summer may not be pleasant. But it’s one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Researchers who evaluated the effects of mask mandates in 15 states and the District of Columbia estimate that 230,000 to 450,000 COVID cases may have been avoided between April 8 and May 22 because people wore masks, according to a new study in the journal Health Affairs.

“Until we get an effective vaccine or an effective way of treating this, wearing a mask is our best defense [against the spread of the virus],” says Cliff Dryden, MBA, RRT-NPS, director of respiratory therapy at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Beyond Fogged Up Glasses

Yet wearing a face mask takes some getting used to, Dryden acknowledges. It can give the wearer the sensation of having to inhale or exhale harder.

“There’s definitely an impact,” Dryden says. “A face mask is designed to allow you to function, but you won’t be able to function at 100% capacity.” You may get winded more easily and your face may feel irritated and uncomfortably warm, especially when the mercury and humidity levels soar, he says.

Still, there are ways to make wearing a mask easier to tolerate. Dryden suggests the following:

Take time to get accustomed to it.
It’s normal to feel claustrophobic or even panicky when breathing feels difficult. “But over time, you get used to it,” he says. If your breathing feels restricted, open your mouth and take several long deep breaths until you catch your breath.

Cliff Dryden, MBA, RRT-NPS, director of respiratory therapy at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

When you can, take a mask break.
Find a space without people, remove your mask and breathe normally for a few minutes before donning it again, Dryden suggests.

Don’t slouch.
At the same time, make sure you aren’t obstructing your breathing with other behaviors like slouching. “Good posture helps the lungs expand,” Dryden says. “And since sitting can make it more difficult to fill the lungs, just standing and taking a deep breath does wonders.”

Don’t wear a mask when you don’t have to.
If you’re driving alone in a car, for instance, you can — and should — take your mask off, Dryden says. “It can lead to disorientation and confusion. That could contribute to an accident,” he says. Feel free to go mask-less at home, unless a family member is battling COVID or was recently exposed.

Lower the intensity and length of workouts.
People who live by their daily runs or like to bike around town face additional challenges. “If you’re exerting yourself or exercising, your respiration and heart rate speed up and your temperature rises,” Dryden says. “Wearing a mask intensifies all of that. You’re not going to have adequate oxygenation.”

The solution: Accept the new normal. “We need to adopt the mindset that we can’t function the way we usually do,” he says. “You can still get in some exercise but at a slower clip.”

Dryden suggests taking the intensity of exercise down a notch and breaking it up into small chunks. “If you take breaks in between to hydrate and cool your body temperature down, and then get right back to your workout, you can still exercise, but in an effective, responsible way,” he says.

A cloth mask may be preferable for outdoor workouts. “A medical mask is very hard to exercise with outdoors,” he says. “Once you start to sweat, it’s likely to break apart.” And since you generate more heat wearing a mask, be sure to hydrate!

“Everyone needs to wear one to help stop the spread of the virus.”

— Cliff Dryden

Don’t forget the kids.
It’s important for children to mask up too. “Keep in mind that a mask is used to prevent the spread of the virus to others. Children may be asymptomatic but still able to spread the virus,” Dryden says. Even though there are fewer cases of children becoming sick from COVID-19, children exposed to the coronavirus have come down with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, a constellation of serious symptoms that may require treatment in the intensive care unit.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children over age 2 wear a mask. Though that’s easier said than done, he notes, it helps if the children understand why it’s important. “If children are able to comprehend why they need a mask, that’s the biggest driver for how compliant they are,” he says. Having an open conversation with kids about COVID can make a big difference.

If small children are wearing masks, parents need to adjust the fit carefully. “You’re looking for that Goldilocks ‘just-right’ fit,” Dryden says. “If the mask is too tight, pressure injuries are more likely to happen because their skin is easier to break down.”

Monitor children closely and make sure they have adequate breaks from the mask and are drinking plenty of fluids.

Be prepared for disease flare-ups.
People with serious breathing problems like asthma and other respiratory conditions may find that wearing a face mask makes symptoms even worse, particularly when it is hot and humid.

“People with asthma need to keep their peak flow meter and bronchodilators with them in case they have an attack,” Dryden says. “I advise them to try to stay more aware of their breathing while wearing a mask.”

While some people have a higher tolerance and can function better than others when wearing a mask, “everyone needs to wear one to help stop the spread of the virus,” he says.

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