Wearing a mask or face covering if you have a lung condition
Better understand why face coverings are needed, how to use them, and ask us any questions you have about face coverings.
A lot of national authorities in countries across Europe have advised that you must wear a mask or a face covering when you leave the house or when you go to certain places where social distancing cannot be maintained such as on public transport or in supermarkets. This has been advised to limit the spread of COVID-19 as lockdown measures ease.
People with lung conditions have contacted us and want to better understand why face coverings are needed, whether a face covering will help them, what face coverings or masks are best for them, and for us to answer their concerns about wearing face coverings. We hope that the following information will help.
Why are we being advised to wear masks or face coverings?
National authorities are advising that we wear masks or face coverings because they can help to prevent the spread of coronavirus. They do this by catching the droplets from our coughs and sneezes that may carry the virus. When you cough, droplets are released from your mouth and may land on surfaces or be breathed in by other people. So, wearing a mask can help to protect other people if you are carrying the virus without knowing.
This is important for people with lung conditions, as the symptoms of COVID-19 may be very similar to those of different lung diseases. As many lung conditions cause coughing, people with lung diseases may be more likely to cough, which means there is more opportunity to pass on the virus if they are infected with COVID-19.
How to safely use a mask/face covering
- Wash your hands before putting on your mask.
- Check that the mask does not have any tears or holes; do not use the mask if it is damaged.
- Make sure the mask covers your mouth, nose, and chin. Make sure there are no gaps on the sides.
- Avoid touching the mask while wearing it.
- Change your mask if it gets dirty or wet.
- Wash your hands before taking off the mask.
- To remove the mask, pull off using the ear loops, without touching the front of the mask.
- Wash your hands after removing the mask.
The WHO has a lot of helpful advice about how to wear and remove masks and how to keep them clean: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks
Do masks offer any protection to the person wearing them?
Face coverings (or fabric masks), are not regulated, and we do not have enough evidence at the moment to say whether they provide the wearer with protection; although it is likely that they do provide some. They are likely, however, to help protect others by preventing the spread of droplets that could carry the virus if you have it.
Surgical masks provide some protection to the wearer but as with all masks/ face coverings, the level of protection reduces the longer the mask is worn for.
If face coverings and masks are not used correctly, they will not provide protection. This is why it is very important to follow the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for putting on, wearing and removing masks.
What does the World Health Organization recommend?
In the World Health Organization guidelines on masks they state the following “Wearing a medical mask can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including COVID-19. However, the use of a mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection. Other measures such as physical, or “social”, distancing, hand hygiene and cleaning frequently touched places by members of the public should be adopted.”
I have a lung condition - is wearing a face covering/mask dangerous for me?
No, wearing a face covering/mask even if you have a lung condition should not cause any harm to your health. It is safe for you to wear them.
I am worried about being more breathless if I wear a face covering/mask, What can I do?
It is really important to protect yourself and not make yourself feel unwell, but it is also important to protect others and to observe the guidance in your country. There are a few things that may help you to cope with using a face covering/mask:
- First, it is important to know that medically, face coverings/masks are safe for people with lung conditions.
- Check with your local authority about whether a face covering such as a scarf is acceptable – some people with lung conditions may find these easier to breathe through and less restricting.
- Once you have your face covering/mask, start to get used to it gradually. Try it on while sat down at home. Get used to the way it feels and to breathing through it. If you start to struggle, you can easily remove the face covering/mask and breathe normally.
- Once you start to feel comfortable wearing the mask, try wearing it for a bit longer and to walk a short distance around your house. This will help you get used to breathing slightly more heavily through the face covering/mask.
- Once you are comfortable moving around your home in the face covering/mask you should feel more comfortable wearing it outside.
I have tried to get used to wearing a face covering/ mask and I cannot do it, what should I do?
If you absolutely cannot wear a face covering/mask, but your country has made it compulsory, you should check whether there are any exceptions for people living with lung disease to not wear a mask. Many countries do have this system, but they might not be very clear about it so check carefully with your local government or respiratory organisation. If it is not a legal requirement to wear a face covering/mask in your country, then it is okay to leave the house without one. You should always consider the risks, and if you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in contact with someone who has, then you should not leave the house for the time recommended by your government.
Should I wear a face covering/mask to work?
Requirements for the use of masks or face coverings at work will vary depending on the type of work you do, and the country that you live in. You should always be guided by your employer about your requirements for the workplace.
Can you wash masks and face coverings?
Cloth face coverings can be re-worn and should be washed after every use. Surgical masks are disposable and should only normally be worn once and safely disposed of after use.
How long can I wear a mask or face covering for?
The length of time that you wear the mask should not necessarily be based on time. If the mask becomes damp or dirty, then you should remove it and replace with a clean dry mask.
What if I need to wear a mask for a long time if I am travelling or at work?
If you will need to wear a mask for a long time, we suggest that you bring a spare mask, or more for longer periods of time. This way, you will be able to wash your hands and change the mask rather than wearing one that is damp which will not be as effective.
How can I be sure that the face covering I have bought is reliable and providing the right level of protection?
There is currently no legislation that governs how face coverings/cloth masks should be made and there is still ongoing research to understand what the best combination of fabrics is.
- Look out for higher quality masks that include at least three layers of fabric.
- Avoid materials that stretch as this can create larger gaps between fibres over time.
- Look for tightly woven fabrics or unwoven materials such as polypropylene.
- Check that the masks fits securely over your chin, nose, and mouth without any gaps around the edges.
- Check to make sure there is no damage to the material.
- Make sure that you can breathe through the mask.
Not many people in my country wear masks/face coverings so it does not feel right wearing one; should I wear one even though others do not?
Yes, if you can. It is important to wear a face covering in appropriate situations, such as when it is not possible to social distance, especially if your national authority is recommending it.
Should I wear gloves?
We do not generally advise wearing gloves. Good handwashing is the best way to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. You can still pick up the virus onto the gloves which you will then use to touch objects and possibly your face. Removing the gloves also creates an additional opportunity of contaminating your hands without realizing this.
Some countries in Europe have made it mandatory to wear gloves, for example when handling fresh produce at the supermarket. If this is the case in your country, then you should abide by the rules in place.
What about the environmental impact of all of these single use masks and gloves?
There has been an increase in plastic waste due to the increase in single use masks and gloves. In this situation, public health needs to be a priority. We can limit plastic waste by not using unnecessary supplies, for example gloves. Gloves do not protect you from COVID-19 and should not be worn by the public unless specifically advised to do so.
We can also make sure that we are disposing of these items responsibly in bins and not leaving them in public places or dropping them on the street or out of car windows. This will also limit the risk of infecting other people.
Face coverings can be washed and reused so are a better choice for the environment than surgical masks.
How do I make a cloth face covering?
There are a lot of resources online about how to make fabric masks. For example:
The more layers of fabric that the face covering has, the higher the level of filtration. The WHO recommends that ideally, masks should have at least three layers and should be made from tightly woven or unwoven fabrics. If you can, avoid using elastic materials such as exercise clothes as stretching will create larger holes in the fabric and reduce its ability to filter the air.