Tag Archives: Masks

Why Wearing a Mask Sucks: Blood Oxygen Levels?

Wearing a mask is terrible. This should be common knowledge by now (unless you’re one of those people that think mask wearing infringes on your ‘Murkian Freedoms or something), especially now that we’re well into the hot and humid summer months. Masks are hot, sweaty, steamy, uncomfortable, annoying, and stinky, as the first thing I noticed upon wearing a mask was that my breath was fucking terrible. Even an hour after brushing my teeth, my breath trapped in my mask fucking reeked. There is nothing remotely enjoyable about wearing a mask.

But by far the worst part about wearing a mask is that they are difficult to breathe in, thereby lowering your blood’s oxygen content. This could be dangerous to anyone with anemia or breathing issues, and might even lead to passing out or fainting. Breathing and oxygen are kinda important things for your body, and masks fuck all of this up.

Except…except that last paragraph is total bullshit. I made it up. Or rather I took the stereotypical dumbasses’ talking-points and recreated them to the best of my abilities. Hopefully this “alternative fact” has been thoroughly debunked by the many photos we’ve all maybe seen recently on social media. I’ve seen a few photos and videos of people wearing masks for literal hours while checking their blood oxygen levels to see if they go down at all. No, they stay right where they are, meaning the mask doesn’t do shit to your oxygen levels.

Photo from here. (Which is apparently from a Dr. Megan Hall on Facebook) Note the SpO2 at 99%.

So why do masks feel suffocating if they’re not actually suffocating you?

A Quirk of the Human Body

A few years ago while bored at work I got into this challenge to see how long I could hold my breath. As always, why the fuck not? Work can be incredibly boring. I’d exhale deeply and take a massive, lung-filling breath and see how long I could hold it. My record was just over a minute, maybe a minute-and-a-half, but this was about as long as I could hold it. Doing some research I discovered the world record for breath holding was something like 24 minutes: how the fuck was that possible?

This is possible because us humans have some stupid system in place in our bodies that we, for some reason, only feel the need to breathe not when our oxygen runs out but when carbon dioxide (CO2) builds up to a certain level. Isn’t that fascinating? Evolution isn’t perfect and we’ve survived just fine even having this seemingly silly system in place. By expelling as much CO2 out of your body by hyperventilating you can “trick” your body into thinking it’s not running out of precious oxygen. By hyperventilating and getting those CO2 levels as low as possible initially you can hold your breath much longer.

It’s this reason why oxygen masks on planes are so important. When an airplane depressurizes you don’t really notice much — no suffocation or difficulties breathing — despite your body being only seconds away from losing consciousness and minutes away from death. This is also why breathing in helium (or any other non-oxygen gas) is dangerous; you can quickly displace blood oxygen and not even be aware of it until you pass out or die. Once again you won’t feel ‘suffocated’ because you’re still exhaling CO2 and your body feels perfectly fine. Fun, isn’t it?

So, what are some symptoms of high blood CO2? The medical term from this is hypercapnia and I’ve linked Wikipedia if you feel like going down the rabbit hole. Here are some of the early symptoms of hypercapnia: breathlessness, headache, confusion, and lethargy. There are more severe symptoms but I’m not going to include them because I think this should be enough to show what I think is going on. Granted, I don’t know this for fact, but I think it sounds logical enough:

Masks trap a small amount of exhaled carbon dioxide near your face. When you inhale the first half-second you’re taking in CO2 which could lead to increased blood CO2 levels despite having adequate oxygen.

I think people by not being aware of the CO2 blood level and its relation to feeling like you’re suffocating mistake these mild symptoms as not them having enough oxygen. It makes sense and I’ve felt this way with a mask on — it really can feel like you’re not breathing enough — but the home experiments people have done show this to not be the case. Sure, some people might have medical conditions where a simple mask could be enough to put their bodies out of whack (emphysema, those missing a lung, etc.), but for most (and by most I mean like 99.5% of everybody) a mask is only a moderate discomfort and cannot ‘suffocate’ you to any realistic or dangerous degree.

What to do About It?

Masks do take some adjusting in how you breathe and this makes sense if my whole ‘CO2 trapped in mask when you first inhale’ idea is true. I’ve notice that while wearing a mask I do breathe slightly different. My breaths have become deeper and more deliberate and I think this is to bring in enough oxygen to adjust to the initial CO2 also being inhaled. My exhales are also more deliberate, as if I’m trying to get a tiny bit more CO2 out of my body because I know I’ll inhale a small portion on the next breath. (Note: I tried to find a link to a proper ‘how to breathe in a mask’ article; I couldn’t find one. The ones I did find only had vague tips like “be mindful of how you breathe” and “be calm.”)

So sure, mask are terrible to wear, but we all know that. That’s luckily about as bad as it gets. If you don’t have an underlying medical condition (a real one, not a fake-ass one) you’ll be fine. You won’t suffocate or die. Sure, you won’t be running a marathon in record time with one on, but for everyday things like working or shopping you’re not going to suffocate. This suffocating feeling is most likely caused by the mask trapping some exhaled CO2 close to your face that is inhaled before fresh air can make it to your mouth/nose. People have shown that blood O2 levels remain constant while wearing a mask and it’s only the elevated CO2 levels that make you feel suffocated. This is due to some silly quirk in our bodies that links the feeling of suffocation to CO2 levels and not oxygen levels. But above all: WEAR YOUR FUCKING MASK. It might somewhat protect yourself, it definitely protects others, and let’s all just please play along with coronavirus protocols so we can all get back to a normal life as soon as possible.

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