Health officials urge us to wear face masks in public to reduce the risk of infection from COVID-19. But many people complain that wearing a mask for a prolonged period of time makes them feel faint and dizzy.
A driver in Lincoln Park, New Jersey, crashed his SUV into a pole while wearing an N95 mask in late April and said in a Facebook post that he passed out due to "insufficient oxygen intake/excessive carbon dioxide intake."
According to Health, many people feel smothered wearing masks and wonder if the lack of oxygen coupled with increased inhalation of carbon dioxide (CO2) may be the cause. The National Institutes of Health has stated that inhaling high levels of CO2 can be life-threatening. It triggers a condition called hypercapnia leading to headaches, vertigo, double vision, seizures, or suffocation.
"It has to be a pretty high concentration to be capable of causing harm," Bill Carroll, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of chemistry at Indiana University, Bloomington, told Health. "CO2 is present in the atmosphere at a level of about 0.04%. It is dangerous in the atmosphere when it is greater than about 10%."
Carroll said he doubts cloth face masks can cause anyone to pass out because they are generally loose fitting and allow air to pass through their porous material. N95 masks, however, are another story.
"Someone wearing an N95 mask for a prolonged period of time may have alterations in their blood chemistry that could lead to changes in level of consciousness if severe," said infectious disease expert Amesh Adalja, M.D., of Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in Maryland. He told Health that this would most likely happen to people who are smokers, overweight, older people, or others who have respiratory conditions.
He added that there is no reason for the general public to even be wearing N95s. In the meantime, Stanford research engineers have created a new type of face mask using the N95 concept coupled with a device worn around the waist that generates pure, clean oxygen and pumps it into the mask so that the wearer doesn't suffer from oxygen depletion.
The researchers claim that wearing an N95 mask can reduce oxygen intake from 5% to 20%. "That's significant, even for a healthy person," they said. "It can cause dizziness and lightheadedness. If you wear a mask long enough, it can damage the lungs. For a patient in respiratory distress, it can even be life-threatening."
They've developed a working prototype of their device and plan to market it to first responders, doctors, nurses, or anyone who has to wear a mask for the foreseeable future.
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