Combating Masked Panic

 

If there is one thing we can all agree on right now, it’s probably the fact that wearing a mask can be uncomfortable and sometimes downright nerve-wracking.

I am a medical and public health student who has been fascinated, if terrified, by the current pandemic and the multitude of human responses to it, and I have spent a lot of time in hospitals lately, trying to stay consistently masked throughout long days.  Here, I have compiled some of my tips for making daylong masking livable. While I’m not an infectious disease expert, I believe I have enough medical training to know that these non-medical suggestions won’t hurt you, and enough public health training to know how much widespread masking could help all of us.

In medicine, different types of hygiene have become hot topics – for example, headache hygiene and sleep hygiene. These ideas refer to best preventative practices to avoid flare-ups of common symptoms like insomnia. Consider this a preliminary, anecdotal guide to mask hygiene. It’s best to stay home when transmission rates of the virus are high, but these ideas can be helpful for essential workers wearing masks all day, anyone running necessary errands, and immunocompromised people leaving the house during times of relatively lower transmission.

It’s hard to keep your mask on all the time, but there are ways to make it less miserable.

 

You don’t have to compromise comfort

Much of the hygienic maintenance required for a pleasant masking experience needs to happen before you don your face covering. Obviously, one non-negotiable rule is frequently changing out disposable masks and washing your cloth masks with gentle soap. I find cloth masks easier to breathe in, better smelling, more attractive and less abrasive to my skin. They’re also more environmentally friendly and not subject to the forces of supply and demand, so I recommend stocking up on non- disposables. Cotton is ideal for comfort; just make sure you can’t blow out a candle through it, which is one way to test whether it’s really doing its job.

 

Don’t neglect your skin

Wash your face before and after prolonged masking. A routine that has helped me combat that pesky “maskne” (acne in the distribution of your mask) is wearing a light facial moisturizer, preferably with SPF to avoid any mask tan. Technically, you should be wearing SPF on your face every day anyway, so this is multifunctional. Of course, you should also be washing your face at the beginning and end of every day, but you may want to throw in an extra rinse when you get home and take your mask off.

 

Pre-treat glasses or protective eyewear

If you wear glasses, you’re probably already familiar with the dreaded lens-fog that occurs when you step out of your air conditioned car or home and into the outdoor humidity, and the same thing can occur when coupling masks and eyewear. Try pre-rubbing lenses with products made to stop ski goggles from fogging up, like Cat Crap Multi-Use Anti-Fog Spray. Wear them low on your nose.

 

Maintain a clean mouth

An aggressive oral hygiene regimen is a must for all-day maskers. Flossing, brushing and rinsing with antiseptic mouthwash before masked outings can help neutralize the bad breath that sometimes infiltrates our masks. Strong, sugar-free breath mints throughout the day can be used for damage control after eating and drinking.

 

Stay hydrated

Hydrating is more important than ever. Breathing through a mask can dry out the air you breathe and leave you with a dry mouth. If you’re at work, find a semi-private corner to pull down your mask and drink water throughout the day. If you’re out running errands, take a big swig of water before you get out of the car. A dry mouth is a less-foul smelling mouth, and a hydrated human is a happier, calmer mask-wearer.

 

Regulate your sinuses

Similarly, wearing a mask all day can dry out the air you breathe and thus dry out your mouth and sinuses. I like to use saline nasal spray at the beginning of my long days at the hospital to prevent my nasal passages from drying out. I’ve found putting a little Vick’s VapoRub under my nose can be really refreshing when I feel stifled by my mask. It has also helped alleviate my nausea and allergic rhinitis (“sinus allergies”, “hay fever”, basically a chronic runny nose), which I deal with regularly and find are worse when I’m wearing a mask. With both of these methods, you may want to blow your nose after you apply the spray or rub but before putting on your mask. And don’t forget to wash your hands before you start messing with your nose!

 

Be mindful of your breathing

The feeling that we are being smothered by our masks can sometimes make us unconsciously breathe more shallowly and through our mouths. Ironically, this only adds to that smothering feeling, so fight that urge! If you find yourself wanting to rip your mask off to get some air, first try taking 3 slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. This can help reset your nervous system and can help you take deeper breaths afterwards, even when you aren’t explicitly focusing on your breathing anymore. This sounds obvious and trivial, but if it stops you from pulling your mask below your nose in public, something as simple as deep breathing could protect essential workers and immunocompromised individuals.

 

Don’t give in to masked panic

Masks are an annoying new part of life, but minimizing some of that unpleasantness could have big implications for public health. I know we’re all hoping for the speedy distribution of a safe and effective vaccine, but mask wearing is – and will remain – important as we work through the vaccination process. Masks may also continue to be necessary if a vaccine requires multiple doses or if the virus continues to evolve. Instead of objecting to masking or wearing a mask ineffectively, do your best to prioritize safety while maximizing comfort.  Maintain mask hygiene and fight against masked panic!

 

 

 

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