If you have a breathing difficulty that requires supplemental home oxygen therapy, you likely continue to face challenges because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and the associated changes in our daily lives. For people with COPD and other chronic breathing conditions, figuring out how to wear a face covering in conjunction with a nasal cannula can be a particular challenge.
Let’s take a look at how face mask and face covering guidelines and requirements impact people using home oxygen and portable oxygen therapy.
When You Should Wear a Face Mask with Home O2
Over the course of the spread of the novel coronavirus across the globe, the CDC has changed its recommendations, now recommending to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, you wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently. People can choose respirators such as N95s or KN95s; however, “surgical N95s” are a specific type of respirator that should be prioritized for healthcare settings. WHO recommends disposable medical masks for people of any age with underlying health conditions, including chronic respiratory disease because if infected, they are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill with COVID-19 and dying.
So why is it important to wear an N95 or KN95 face mask? Wearing a non-surgical face mask helps prevent you from spreading any illness. It is important to remember that even if you are feeling well, you could be asymptomatic and spread an illness like the novel coronavirus to someone else. Additionally, wearing it may also provide some protection for you from other people who have the virus. The more people that wear masks in public, the better protected everyone is from infection. Beyond that, the COPD Foundation points out that wearing a mask can be a helpful reminder not to touch your face when you are out in public, particularly for people using oxygen. This can help further protect you from potential infection. Above and beyond the need to wear a mask to prevent the transmission of illness, it can also help protect your sensitive airways from pollution, allergens and other irritants, as well as protecting you from bronchospasms resulting from cold, dry air in the winter.
Tips for Wearing a Face Mask When You Use Oxygen Therapy
For people who use oxygen therapy, wearing a face covering is not as simple as it seems. Oxygen therapy requires using a nasal cannula for most people, and figuring out how to wear a face mask over a nasal cannula can be tricky. Moreover, for people with breathing conditions, wearing a face mask can make it feel harder to breathe. On the other hand, people with lung conditions are at a higher risk of complications if they contract COVID-19, as well as being more likely to have to cough while out in public, so it is extremely important for them to wear a face mask.
So, if you have a lung condition and find face masks difficult or uncomfortable to wear, what should you do? There are a few things you can do to make wearing a face covering easier and more comfortable when you have to leave your home, even during your oxygen therapy treatments. Additionally, there are a few things you should do to ensure that you are putting on, wearing and removing your face mask safely. The following tips can help you with wearing a face mask during oxygen therapy.
- Wear the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently. Try out several different face coverings: If possible, it can be helpful to try several different kinds of face masks to see which works best for you. Make sure your face mask covers both your nose and mouth, and is made from a breathable fabric, like 100% cotton, percale or denim.[1,4]
- Practice wearing your face mask at home: Wearing a face covering takes some getting used to, particularly when you are learning how to wear it over a nasal cannula. Practice wearing your mask at home first so you can get a good fit and learn how to adjust both your mask and your cannula so everything is as comfortable as possible. Make sure you know how to get a secure fit so you will not be tempted to adjust it while outside your home.
- Always have a mask on hand: It is helpful to keep a mask with you anytime you answer the door or go outside for a walk, in case you are unable to maintain safe social distancing. Keep a clean mask by your door and in your bag or pocket (inside a clean paper bag) when you step outside, just in case.
- Have more than one mask: You will want to make sure you have several masks, in case one is in the wash, needs to be cleaned or disposed. This way, you are less likely to be caught unprepared.
- Remember to clean your cannula and tubing: The novel coronavirus can live on plastic for up to 72 hours, so the plastic tubing on your nasal cannula and your tubing could become sources of infection.[5,6] After you get home from any location outside your front door, clean your tubing carefully with an alcohol wipe or dish soap and warm water.
- Be vigilant about washing your hands before and after touching your mask: In order to avoid infecting others or becoming infected, wash your hands carefully before putting your mask on, and wash your hands every time you touch your mask, including when you take it off. Use soap and warm water for 20 seconds when possible, but hand sanitizer is also acceptable.
- Wash your mask promptly: Once you get home, wash your hands, then take your mask off by the ear or head straps, then place cloth masks directly in the laundry or safely dispose of disposable masks. You should wash your cloth mask at least once a day, or immediately if it becomes soiled, dirty or someone has coughed or sneezed on you.
- Carry a clean paper bag with you in case you must remove your mask: If you have to remove your mask for any reason while you are outside your home, carry a small, clean paper bag with you to place your mask in. Never place your mask on any surface outside your home that has not been cleaned and dried.
- Try not to linger: Make any necessary trips outside your home as fast as possible. This not only reduces the amount of potential exposure time, but it also reduces the likelihood that you will end up accidentally touching your mask or face without washing your hands first.
Ensuring Your Face Mask Fits When You Use Home Oxygen Therapy
In order for your face mask to provide adequate protection, you need to make sure you wear it properly. If your face covering fits poorly, or if you wear it incorrectly, you will not be protected. Here is how to make sure your mask fits as it should, stays safely on and does not impair your supplemental oxygen supply.[1,7]
- Wear an N95 or KN95 mask or the most protective mask you can that fits well and that you will wear consistently.
- Wear a mask with a stiff, bendable edge for best fit: Many cloth masks are made with a bendable wire or other material to help you get the closest fit possible around your nose. This not only helps ensure a comfortable fit, but also helps to keep your mask in place so you do not have to adjust it.
- Make sure your mask covers your nose, mouth and chin: Your mask should cover your nose, mouth and chin comfortably without gaps on the side or top, but should not feel tight. You want a close fit, with enough room for your nasal cannula to fit comfortably.
- Once your mask is on, do not touch it: This takes some practice, but once you leave your home, do not touch your mask or cannula if at all possible. If you must touch either your mask or your cannula, wash your hands first.
- Remove your mask from the ears: When you get home, wash your hands and then remove your mask by pulling the straps off from behind your ears or untying the straps behind your head. Try to avoid touching the outside of the mask itself or your face. Put your mask directly in the laundry, then wash your hands thoroughly.
If you are struggling with comfortably wearing a mask with your supplemental oxygen, try wearing a bandana over it. This may feel more breathable to you, since it remains loose at the bottom, and it will not impair your tubing at all. Just be sure that it fits securely, but not too tight. And, of course, when all else fails, it is safest to stay home.
For more information about COVID-19 and home oxygen, see our COVID-19 and Oxygen Concentrator FAQs.
- Types of Masks and Respirators Updated Sept. 8, 2022 Use and Care of Masks | CDC
- “When and How to Use Masks.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, Jan 5, 2022. Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Masks (who.int)
- Sullivan, Jamie. “A Coronavirus Update for the COPD Community.” COPD Foundation, COPD Foundation, 21 May 2020, www.copdfoundation.org/COPD360social/Community/COPD-Digest/Article/1553/A-Coronavirus-Update-for-the-COPD-Community.aspx.
- Brody, Barbara. “Have Difficulty Breathing in a Face Mask? Advice for People with Asthma and Lung Disease.” CreakyJoints, Global Healthy Living Foundation, 14 May 2020, creakyjoints.org/living-with-arthritis/coronavirus/managing-symptoms/difficulty-breathing-face-mask-asthma-lung-disease/.
- Haelle, Tara. “Everything You Need To Know About Wearing Masks-Until The CDC Tells Us More.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 9 Apr. 2020, www.forbes.com/sites/tarahaelle/2020/04/07/everything-you-need-to-know-about-wearing-masks-until-the-cdc-tells-us-more/#21076a084bdb.
- “COVID-19 Basics.” Harvard Health, Harvard Health Publishing, Accessed 21 May 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-basics.
- Conner, Katie. “Face Masks in Cars, Stores, Outside: Places You’re Expected to Wear a Covering.” CNET, CNET, 11 May 2020, www.cnet.com/health/face-masks-in-cars-stores-outside-places-youre-expected-to-wear-a-covering/.