Wearing masks does not cause lung infections, loss of consciousness

(Frank Augstein, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Does wearing a mask can cause staphylococcus, serious lung infections and loss of consciousness due to restricted airflow?

A recent assessment by Associated Press found this claim that has circulated widely on social media is mostly false. Masks do not restrict airflow or cause serious lung infections. Wearing a dirty mask with an open wound could lead to a staph infection but that is rare. Medical experts encourage the use of face masks to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

In recent months, misinformation about masks has flooded social media. One of the latest posts is claiming that masks not only cause staphylococcus, but also serious lung infections and restrict oxygen.

Experts say wearing masks does not cause lung infections or reduce oxygen, leading to loss of consciousness.

“I have also heard people get pneumonia and asthma from a mask. I don’t think that’s realistic,” said Dr. Van Tobel with Orange Park Surgery Center.

Tobel says he wears a mask on average 4-8 hours every day to perform surgeries and he has never gotten a staff infection.

“There’s no evidence of masks leading to fungal or bacterial infections of the upper airway or the lower airway as in pneumonia,” Davidson Hamer, infectious disease specialist and professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, said in June.

Nor does it impact airflow. Dr. Michael Niederman, a pulmonologist at Weill Cornell Medicine, said that wearing masks does not decrease oxygen levels, nor does it increase carbon dioxide levels. “There’s no evidence that I know of that they are going to harm anyone,” Niederman said.

The post is accompanied by five photos identified as showing people who got staph infections from masks. A reverse image search of the photos and interviews with dermatologists revealed that is not true. The photo on the top right shows a child with eczema herpeticum, which results when someone with severe eczema becomes infected by a cold sore (herpes) and it spreads, said Dr. Carrie Kovarik, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The photo directly below shows a healthcare worker who was wearing a tight mask that left a mark. “The nurse with the rash from the mask is likely from a poorly fitted n95 -- this is not the type of mask the general public is asked to wear and in fact it is NOT recommended that the general population wear N95 masks,” Dr. Laura Ferris, associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh, said in an email.

The bottom left photo shows a child with chickenpox. The bottom right photo shows a woman with rosacea. Kovarik said the photo on the top left shows a girl who has a rash but not an infection and it does not look like it came from a mask.

Dermatologists like Kovarick say they have rarely seen an increase in infection from masks, including herpes or Staph.

“In fact, our increased handwashing, decreased contact, and overall hygiene may be decreasing these infections,” she said.

Contracting a staph infection from masks is incredibly rare, said Dr. Ivy Lee, a board-certified dermatologist with a private practice in California. If the skin is broken, it is a potential source for bacteria or viruses to cause a secondary infection.

“If we have poor mask hygiene and we are not worried about regularly cleaning those masks, that then we can introduce that possibility of the risk of getting a secondary infection if our skin barrier is broken,” she said.

The Associated Press has also debunked false claims that masks cause fungal and bacterial pneumonia, pleurisy and legionnaires’ disease.

While Dr. Tobel has never heard of any cases, he did say it’s “possible, not probable if you’re wearing a clean mask.”

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