Update – July 25, 2022
We updated this blog post to include updated face mask guidance from the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Face masks are an essential tool in our fight against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. They also have other benefits for people with asthma and allergies.
Can People With Asthma Wear Face Masks?
Yes, people with asthma can wear face masks.
“For people with mild asthma or well-controlled asthma, it’s probably not going to be an issue,” said Dr. David Stukus, member of the Medical Scientific Council for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). “For people who have very severe disease and have frequent exacerbations, ER visits, hospitalizations, require lots of medications and frequent symptoms, it might cause more issues for those folks.”
It’s important to keep your asthma under control. Keep taking your medicines as prescribed. If you are having breathing issues that need your quick-relief inhaler (albuterol) more than two or more times per week, it’s a sign to call your doctor.
If you’re having trouble wearing a mask, try a different fabric, type, or fit. According to the WHO, medical masks, when worn the right way, do not cause you to breathe in more carbon dioxide or reduce your oxygen levels. Other studies back this up as well.1 And a face mask made of three layers probably won’t fit tightly enough to affect your oxygen either. If your mask is uncomfortable, try a new type of mask.
How Do Face Masks Help Reduce the Spread of the Coronavirus?
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is airborne and spreads from person to person. It can spread through droplets from your nose or mouth when you breathe, talk, sing, yell, eat, sneeze, or cough. You are most likely to catch it if you are not fully vaccinated and less than 6 feet (2 meters) away from someone who is infected.
It’s best to wear a mask in public indoor spaces even if you are fully vaccinated. They also recommend universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status.
Masks are effective in reducing the spread of the coronavirus in both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.2 Studies have shown many people have COVID-19 and don’t show symptoms. Or they may have the virus a few days before they show symptoms. The purpose of wearing a face mask is to protect you as well as keep you from spreading COVID-19 to other people. This is especially important in public indoor spaces.
Wearing a face mask may also make COVID-19 symptoms less severe if you do get it.3 Several studies show that face masks may reduce the amount of particles of the coronavirus you take in, which can result in milder illness.2
Proper care of your face mask is also important to help you reduce your chances of getting COVID-19. Follow these steps when putting on and removing a face mask:
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before putting on a face mask.
- Avoid touching the face mask while using it.
- If your face mask gets damp, replace it with a clean one.
- Remove the mask by the ear loops or ties, trying to not touch the parts of the mask that touch your face.
- Wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.
- Wash fabric face masks in hot, soapy water right away. Throw away disposable masks immediately.
What Kind of Face Mask Should I Wear?
There are several types of masks available that can help you reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
N95 and KN95 Masks or Respirators
You may consider wearing an N95 mask or respirator for better protection or if you interact with large numbers of the public or are at increased risk for severe illness. NIOSH-approved N95 respirators labeled “surgical” or “medical” should be prioritized for health care personnel. N95 and KN95 masks should be properly fitted. There are several pharmacies that currently provide free masks (N95 respirators) to the public.
Although respirators may be available in smaller sizes, they are typically designed to be used by adults in workplaces, so they have not been tested for broad use in children.
KN95 masks provide an alternative to N95 respirators and are recommended for non-health-care settings for non-medical use. People who are at increased risk of COVID-19 illness, teachers, staff, and other adults in the indoor school setting may prefer KN95 masks.
Not all KN95 masks meet the similar requirements for N95 masks. Find a reliable source to purchase KN95 masks. Do not use KN95 masks with exhalation valves because they can allow the virus to escape.
Cloth and Disposable Masks
There are many options for cloth face masks. You can buy disposable (surgical) or reusable face masks at many major retail stores or online, or you can make your own. Fabric made from 100% cotton, such as heavy-duty quilt fabric or a knit fabric, can be effective.
If you have a latex allergy, be careful with elastic ear loops. Choose face masks with fabric ear loops or that tie behind your head.
Finding a mask that is comfortable and fits well will provide the best protection. If you feel the need to readjust or pull on your mask, it does not fit well. Consider these following:
- Masks with multiple layers of fabric
- Masks that fit snugly against the sides of your face without any gaps
- Masks that cover your nose, mouth, and chin
- Masks with a metal strip or nose guard to keep air from leaking out
- Mask fitter or brace over a disposable or cloth mask to prevent air leaking out of the sides and top
- Combining one disposable mask underneath a cloth mask (the second mask should push the edges of the inner mask against your face)
- Knotting and tucking ear loops of a three-ply mask (See video below)
- Masks with three layers:
- An outer water-resistant layer (such as polyester or polyester blend)
- A middle layer of non-woven fabric (such as polypropylene
- An inner layer of cotton
Keep in mind that some businesses or schools may mandate which types of masks are most appropriate in their environment.
Children 2 years and older should wear a mask that is made for children to ensure it is snug without any gaps. Children with a disability that keeps them from safely wearing a mask and children under 2 should not wear masks.
Try different styles and fabrics to see what works for you. To tell if a face mask will be effective, hold your mask up to a light. If you can easily see the light through your mask, it may not provide enough protection. Make sure your face mask blocks the light but still allows you to breathe through it.
Some types of face coverings are not effective at preventing the spread of coronavirus. Bandannas cannot fit tightly enough against your face. If you have a mask with a vent or valve, check the inside of the mask. If you see fabric inside that covers the valve or vent, then the mask is OK to wear. If you see the vent or valve from the inside of the mask, you should not wear the mask because droplets from your mouth and nose can pass through the valve as you exhale.
Do not choose masks that:
- Are made of fabric that makes it hard to breathe, such as vinyl
- Have exhalation valves or vents which allow virus particles to escape, unless the inside of the valve/vent is covered by fabric
Do not wear two disposable masks at a time or combine a KN95 mask with any other mask.
What Can I Do If My Job Requires Me to Wear a Face Mask?
You may be required to wear a mask as part of your job. Different places may require you to wear a mask. And if your job is located indoors around other people, it is best to wear a mask. If your asthma is not well-controlled and you have trouble breathing while wearing a face mask, what are your options? (Reminder: If your asthma is not well-controlled, talk with your doctor!)
The first step is to try a different mask style – most people with asthma should be able to wear a mask comfortably. Try different types of face masks in different fabrics or styles to find something more breathable. If your job is strenuous, it may feel harder to breathe through a mask.
The second step is to work with your employer. Talk about ways you can work while still helping prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Here are some ways you may be able to work with your employer:
- Ask for time off to get the COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.
- Ask to serve in a role away from the public or other employees.
- Ask if you can work a different shift or from home.
- If you are part of a union, work with your union representative to ask for reasonable accommodations.
- Ask if you can take more frequent breaks if you feel a face mask is affecting your breathing.
- Stay home if you start having asthma or COVID-19 symptoms.
People with asthma may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under this act, people with disabilities can ask for reasonable accommodations so they can work. If your work requests won’t create a hardship for your employer, you can ask for accommodations.
But the ADA also says if an accommodation could cause harm to other people, then a business does not need to provide the accommodation. If a person with asthma is coughing and not wearing a mask, they might be exposing other people to COVID-19. In this case, the employer could require the person with asthma to stay home or wear a face mask.
If your company requires a face mask, try to find one that works for you. Refer to the mask suggestions above.
Don’t be afraid to talk to your supervisor or human resources representative. They may also have some creative ideas to help you do your job while managing your asthma.
Remember, wearing a face mask is only part of the strategy to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Getting fully vaccinated, physical distancing, improving air ventilation, and washing your hands often can also help protect you and other people from COVID-19.
What Are Other Benefits to Wearing Face Masks?
Pollen can trigger asthma. Wearing a mask can help keep pollen from getting into your nose and lungs. Even though a mask can help prevent symptoms, consider going outside when pollen counts are lower.
Cold weather can trigger asthma. When it’s cold, wearing a face mask can warm and humidify the air you breathe. And masks can reduce your exposure to air pollution.
Masks also can protect you from respiratory infections like the flu, COVID-19, and even the common cold.
Medical Review July 2022 by Mitchell Grayson, MD
1. Wearing a mask does not affect oxygen saturation in patients with or without asthma. American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology. (n.d.). Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://www.aaaai.org/About/News/News/mask.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Science Brief: Community use of cloth masks to control the spread of SARS-COV-2. Retrieved October 6, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/coronaviru...anchor_1619456988446.
3. Gandhi, M., Beyrer, C., & Goosby, E. (2020). Masks Do More Than Protect Others During COVID-19: Reducing the Inoculum of SARS-CoV-2 to Protect the Wearer. Journal of general internal medicine, 35(10), 3063–3066. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-020-06067-8