What Our Masks Revealed: How Covering our Faces is Uncovering a Deeper Health Problem in America.

by David J Bidler

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

As a nation dons masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19 a potentially greater health concern is being uncovered.

Most of us can’t breathe to begin with.

Covering the nose and mouth with a thin layer of fabric has caused reports of lightheadedness, nausea, headaches, anxiety, and panic.

To understand why this phenomena occurs-and what it reflects-we need to understand how human respiration works.

We breathe in oxygen.

We breathe out carbon dioxide.

Prior to being exhaled as a waste gas carbon dioxide performs a critical task-it enables us to actually use the oxygen that we take in.

Getting oxygen into the blood is easy. Getting oxygen into the tissues and cells of the body is harder-it requires carbon dioxide to push oxygen off of the hemoglobin. This process is know as the Bohr Effect.

The urge to take our next breath is driven by rising carbon dioxide levels as well.

Our tolerance to carbon dioxide is what determines how effectively we use oxygen while influencing our breathing rate and volume in the process.

A person with a high tolerance to carbon dioxide can use oxygen effectively.

They should have no problem tolerating the mild obstruction of wearing a face mask.

A person with a low tolerance to carbon dioxide is more likely to experience a feeling of mild suffocation while wearing a mask, along with many of the symptoms described above.

This reflects a level of breathing dysfunction that existed prior to COVID-19, will continue to persist after the pandemic, and will make exposure to any respiratory virus especially dangerous as the respiratory system is not functioning well to begin with.

Respiratory diseases are among the leading cause of death and disability in the world.

Roughly 65 million people suffer from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) which kills 3 million people every year. It is the third leading cause of death worldwide.

Every single day 11 Americans die from asthma, leading to more than 4,000 deaths per year.

In 2015 nearly 7 percent of all deaths in the U.S were due to chronic respiratory illness.

Intolerance to carbon dioxide resulting in an inability to effectively use oxygen is only one cause of respiratory dysfunction.

The respiratory system can also be compromised from a mechanical perspective.

In this case secondary breathing muscles take the place of primary muscles. Dysfunctional rib cage mechanics can also reduce the ability of the lungs to fully inflate, further hindering oxygen uptake.

The difficulty breathing that one experiences when wearing a mask uncovers a larger health issue that can dramatically impact quality of life and lead to an early death.

Catching this early and acting on the information may ultimately save more lives than COVID-19 has taken.

This offers an inspiring opportunity to proactively improve the resilience of our respiratory systems in the wake of a global respiratory pandemic.

The question is whether we can take a moment to reflect on the opportunity to address a systemic respiratory issue in the face of an acute one, while implementing the necessary educational infrastructure to become less vulnerable to both.

About the author:

David Bidler is president of Physiology First, a nonprofit organization that shares solutions to stress and anxiety management with students across the globe.

In 2017 David co-founded Breathe to Perform to share the power of better breathing with individuals, families, workplaces, and teams.

David is the author of Breathe To Perform: 3 Simple Breathing Exercises to Reduce Stress, Improve Energy, and Peak Athletic Performance.

Breathe to Perform helps to improve health, fitness, and performance through better breathing. Professional development services for workplaces and teams.