By now, face masks are a part of our new normal, whether it’s a quick trip to the supermarket, sending kids off to school for in-person instruction, or in instances where you can’t safely socially distance from others. But if you’ve worn a mask for any length of time, you know that they can feel a little, um, restricting (read: stifling). If you’ve ever wondered if you are getting enough air when wearing a face mask—and potentially pass out on the floor—it’s a valid concern.
There’s nothing like that sensation when you take off your mask after exiting a store and feel the fresh air on your face. In fact, there’s even a name for it: an airgasm. So putting a mask on might make you feel like you’re not breathing well, which can be frightening. “The body is dependent on continuous ventilation for viability. This includes maintaining sufficient oxygen in the blood and also limiting buildup levels of carbon dioxide in the blood,” says Dr. Charles Sutera, FAGD, a board certified dental anesthesiologist in Boston, MA. “And masks are important as personal protective equipment to protect the airway of infectious pathogens.” Typically, a healthy oxygen intake level, or the amount of oxygen circulating in your blood, ranges from 95-100%, with anything below 90% considered low, according to the Mayo Clinic.
But does wearing a mask allow for ample airflow and healthy oxygen levels in the blood? More than likely, yes, says Dr. Syra Madad, an American pathogen preparedness expert and infectious disease epidemiologist, and the Senior Director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program at NYC Health + Hospitals. “When worn correctly and made from breathable material, they are safe and effective,” says Dr. Madad. “They will not block oxygen or airflow.” And especially in the case of kids, it might not be that they’re not getting enough air, but the fit of the mask might be the actual issue. That’s why it’s important to find a mask that is comfortable for your child to wear.
That said, there are times in which you should monitor your mask wearing to ensure that you’re getting enough air. “Typically wearing masks does not cause significant effects on ventilation,” says Dr. Sutera. “However there are some situations when the body requires higher levels of oxygen and must expel higher levels of carbon dioxide than a mask may allow.” So if you’re exerting more energy or exercising, you should be aware of signs of hypoxia and hypercapnia (when you have too much carbon dioxide in your blood), under these circumstances.
So what are some of the symptoms that you’re experiencing insufficient oxygen and excess carbon dioxide levels? For starters, you might have mild headaches, or feel drowsy or be unable to focus. Shortness of breath, feeling disoriented or dizzy, and even changes in your skin color (ranging from blue to red) might be an indicator of a lack of oxygen. If you start to show signs of hypoxia, you should get to a place where you can safely social distance, sit down and take off your mask, and take a few deep breaths. That way, you can avoid potential respiratory problems such as a seizure, a panic or anxiety attack, or even passing out.
While normal mask use is safe, just be mindful of certain situations in which you could increase your risk of insufficient ventilation. People with underlying health concerns (like COPD, bronchitis, asthma, or other cardiovascular conditions), pregnant women, and those living at higher altitudes should be particularly mindful while wearing a mask. That way, you can breathe easy while safely wearing your mask.