Posted on

‘Doc, Can I Get a Mask Exemption?’

Posted on

As more jurisdictions mandate facial coverings in public, questions have arisen about whether it’s safe for everyone — including those with lung disease — to wear masks. Stories about people who claim to be unable to wear masks because of breathing problems are appearing in the news with increasing frequency, and patients are starting to call their doctors to request medical exemptions to public mask requirements.

To address these issues, Medscape spoke with the chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, Dr Albert Rizzo.

The CDC recommendations on mask wearing say, “Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

Does this language suggest that there indeed is a subset of the adult population with lung disease who shouldn’t wear masks?

It makes sense to say that if it makes you uncomfortable to wear a mask because it affects your breathing, you should think twice about getting in a situation where you would have to wear a mask.

I’ve told many of my high-risk patients, “The best way to avoid getting COVID-19 is to stay home and stay away from sick people, especially if you feel that you are not going to be able to wear a mask or facial covering of some sort.”

The reason that some people have trouble with a mask is that they haven’t tried the right style of mask — by that I mean how tightly it fits and the material it’s made out of. Sometimes it really is just that people with lung disease don’t like to have anything covering their faces. Many of these patients feel better where there is air blowing across their faces — they will have a fan blowing even in the middle of winter because they feel more comfortable.

I won’t say it’s all in their heads, but sometimes it’s a matter of desensitizing themselves to wearing a mask. I liken it to people who have sleep apnea. We often have to desensitize them to wearing a mask for sleeping. We tell them to put it on while they are watching TV — don’t hook it up to anything yet, just get used to having something on your face.

I’ve told my patients the same thing about masks for COVID-19. Put on the mask, see how it feels. If you become uncomfortable breathing with it on, take it off, but maybe you can handle it for a half hour or 45 minutes. Find out how much time you have for a trip to the grocery store based on how comfortable you are wearing it at home.

It’s a matter of training the patient, giving them options of how to get comfortable with it, and then making them realize that they have to weigh the benefits and risks of wearing the mask and feeling out of breath versus going out in public and being potentially exposed to coronavirus. And the bottom line is, anybody who is wearing a mask and starts to feel uncomfortable, they can take the mask off.