Expert sets straight five common mask myths

Face masks are one instrument in our toolbox for the fight against COVID-19.

However, there are arguments in circulation against mask wearing that aren’t true. 

UnityPoint Health Infectious Disease Specialist, Dr. Rossana Rosa, debunks five common face mask myths to ensure everyone is armed with accurate information to keep people safe and healthy during this pandemic.

Myth 1: Wearing Face Masks Can Cause Fungal and Bacterial Infections — Like Pneumonia

This is a very common myth that’s circulating. 

First, let’s talk about bacterial infections. The way bacterial pneumonia tends to develop is through aspirating — or breathing in — contents into the lungs. So, in terms of wearing a mask, the respiratory droplets you exhale that land on the inside of your mask that you then breathe back in will not give you bacterial pneumonia.

If you have phlegm, you should find a way to safely spit it out. That way you aren’t at risk of breathing in large amounts of mucus or saliva into your lungs, which is how bacterial pneumonia develops.

Fungal pneumonia, otherwise known as pneumonia caused by molds, is extremely rare and mostly seen in people with low performing immune systems — like those with cancer, a transplant or other types of immune deficiencies. One way you could hypothetically end up with fungal pneumonia is if you find an old mask that’s very moldy and decide to use it. It’s very important to keep your masks clean and wash it after every wear.

Additionally, groups of people who regularly wear masks for prolonged periods of time do not have higher rates of pneumonia than the rest of the population. 

Myth 2: Wearing a Face Mask Causes Long-Term Lung Issues

Some people think wearing a mask leads to a buildup of carbon dioxide in your lungs. 

Cloth face masks, which are the type of mask recommended for public use, still allow for an adequate exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide, so you can remain comfortable. A recent study showed that you won’t damage your lungs from retained carbon dioxide from wearing a cloth face mask.

One thing to clarify, there are certain people with underlying lung conditions who struggle to get a good exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Depending on the severity of their underlying disease, these people shouldn’t wear a face mask. Instead, they should look at other options, such as face shields, for added protection. Anyone with underlying lung conditions should consult with their doctor to find a solution that’s best for them.

Myth 3: According to Some Mask Boxes, Face Masks Don’t Protect You From COVID-19

There’s an image online of a label on a box of medical masks saying the masks won’t protect against viruses. However, that doesn’t mean masks shouldn’t be worn. 

In general, the largest benefit provided by masks is reducing the respiratory droplets put into the air when we talk, cough or sneeze. 

Remember, my mask protects you and your mask protects me. 

By wearing a mask, you minimize the risk of spreading the virus in case you have it and don’t know it yet. If we all mask up, we keep each other safe.   

As a reminder, physical distancing of at least six feet, avoiding crowds and staying away from poorly ventilated indoor settings are still the best ways to avoid getting COVID-19. Face masks are a secondary safety tool when in public and physical distancing isn’t always possible.

Myth 4: All Face Masks Are the Same, If They Cover Your Nose and Mouth

The number of layers your mask has and the fabric it’s made of does matter. 

It’s best to have two to three layers of cotton. If a fabric is too thin, it might not be enough. That’s why some of the gaiters are being questioned — due to only having one layer of fabric and wearers constantly touching the outside of the mask, which is not advised. There are good tutorials on how to make a multi-layer mask online.

In terms of a face shield, make sure it goes well below your chin, to the level of the ears and without openings on the forehead.   

Myth 5: Face Masks Don’t Work — It’s Like Putting a Screen Door on a Submarine

This is a common argument. It’s very similar to the social media videos of people using vapor to show how much gets through a face mask. Masks are effective. But it’s important to remember there is no quick fix against COVID-19. 

Wearing a face mask is one of the CDC-approved strategies recommended to decrease the spread of the virus. However, it’s important to continue to practice as many preventive measures as possible, including physical distancing (social distancing), handwashing, avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated indoor settings and cleaning commonly touched surfaces frequently. 

If we all put in the effort, we can keep each other safe and control COVID-19 in our communities.

Tracy Warner is CEO of the Greene County Medical Center.

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