Nobody wants to wear a face mask. They often give an unpleasant feeling as we have to work harder at our breathing. This sensation can be especially difficult for people with asthma or COPD who associate working harder at their breathing with wheeze. It is therefore understandable that some people are asking their GPs for a mask exemption.
Most people with asthma and/or COPD are able to wear a face mask for periods of time, even if their condition is quite severe. If you find it difficult, there may be alternative types of coverings or fabrics you feel more comfortable with, or it may be a good time to look at your asthma control.
The existing rules around mask wearing are that some groups of people don’t need to wear one, including children under 12, people with a disability which affects their ability to wear a mask, if it would cause a risk to someone’s health, and in the case of an emergency. It is therefore clear that if someone was to experience an asthma attack outside, they could remove their mask for as long as it took for this to settle.
Our advice is that there is no need for people to ask for an exemption to the mask rules due to their asthma. Indeed, we often recommend that people with asthma wear masks when exercising outdoors, particularly in colder weather. People who do this often get less wheezy. This recommendation is based on research evidence from the last 40 years that shows masks can make the air warmer and more moist and help filter out particulates from pollution and fires that all can trigger wheeze and asthma flare-ups.
As well as being unpleasant and tiring, wearing a face mask can lead to people over-breathing or ‘hyperventilation’. This leads to feeling unwell with symptoms like light-headedness, chest tightness and a sense of anxiety. We note that it is common for people on social media to say that these symptoms are caused by an increase in the level of the waste gas in the body, carbon dioxide. It is therefore important to know that that wearing a standard paper or cloth mask will not increase the level of carbon dioxide in the blood for the overwhelming majority of people with asthma or COPD.
People who are profoundly affected by their lung disease such as those on home oxygen for COPD should be under the care of a respiratory specialist and can discuss their individual circumstances with that expert team, rather than a GP or general physician.
Read more about asthma, COPD, COVID-19 here.