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Headaches? One Surprising Cause…

By Nell Stephenson, B.S.
July 12, 2020
https://thepaleodiet.imgix.net/images/mask-and-headaches.jpg?auto=compress%2Cformat&fit=clip&q=95&w=900 Photo: Pearl PhotoPix | shutterstock.com

Whether you’re wearing an N95 on the front lines working in an essential job, or simply abiding by the directive to wear a protective, homemade, cloth cover over your mouth and nose, you may be experiencing a surprising side effect: headaches.

Having to wear a mask, or other types of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for even short periods of time can lead to headaches. And while tying them on too tightly – leading to constriction - can be a contributor, it's frequently not the sole cause.

Wearing a mask reduces our intake of oxygen; meaning it’s forcing us to breathe in our own carbon dioxide. This can leave us feeling faint, light-headed, or “smothered. (1)

Hypercapnia, or hypercarbia, as it is sometimes called, is a condition arising from too much carbon dioxide in the blood and can be mild to severe.

Symptoms can include (2):

  • dizziness
  • drowsiness
  • excessive fatigue
  • headaches
  • feeling disoriented
  • flushing of the skin
  • shortness of breath

How much a mask can affect CO2 levels depends on what it’s made of, and how tightly it fits.

But aside from feeling temporarily uncomfortable, do we need to be overly concerned with feeling a slight headache after wearing a mask?

The research is pointing to “no” and the good news is twofold; first, prolonged use of any face mask, including the N95 respirator, has not been shown to cause carbon dioxide toxicity in healthy people. However, if someone already has a preexisting lung condition, the recommendation is to carefully consider the use of face masks (3), perhaps reviewing with their doctor how to select the best option for them.

Second, if a healthy person experiences a mild headache, chances are it will resolve itself once the mask is removed

Nurses, physicians and paramedical personnel on duty at the National University Hospital during the earlier phases of COVID reported that spontaneous resolution of headaches occurred in most cases within 1 hour after removal of the equipment and nearly 70% did not use acute analgesic treatment. (4)

The take away is that if you’re just feeling a mild headache, you could try what I did the first time it happened to me: once I was home and had removed my mask, I simply sat and focused on proper belly breathing with some peppermint oil for a good 10–15 minutes outside as I self-massaged my neck, and that did the trick.

There’s no risk in allowing a little time to see if these natural courses of action for a mild headache will work before downing NSAIDS or jumping to the conclusion that you’re ill.

However, as always, these articles are never meant to take the place of medical advice, so if you feel you are experiencing COVID like symptoms, or the headache is simply not going away, best to get checked out asap.

References

(1) https://www.health.com/condition/infectious-diseases/coronavirus/does-wearing-face-mask-increase-co2-levels

(2) https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320501#symptoms

(3) https://www.health.com/condition/infectious-diseases/coronavirus/does-wearing-face-mask-increase-co2-levels

(4) https://www.healio.com/news/primary-care/20200407/ppeassociated-headaches-increase-among-health-care-workers-amid-covid19

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