Headaches? One Surprising Cause…

Whether you’re wearing an N95 on the front lines working in what is now classified as 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 PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for even short periods of time can lead to headaches, and it’s not necessarily because you’ve tied them on too tightly and are causing construction, though that could contribute as well.

Wearing a mask reduces our intake of oxygen; meaning it’s forcing us to breathe in our own carbon dioxide. This can leaves 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

The extent to which a mask could affect CO2 levels depends on what it’s made of, and how tightly it fits.

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; one – 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.

In addition, 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 during the earlier phases of COVID at the National University Hospital reported that spontaneous resolution occurred in most cases within 1 hour from removal of the equipment and nearly 70%  did not use acute analgesic treatment (4).

Take away: if you’re just feeling a mild headache, you could try what I did the first time it happened to me, before I’d thought it through:   once home and removing 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.

No risk seeing if the natural course of action for a mild headache for a brief period of time will work before downing NSAIDS or jumping to the conclusion that you’re ill.

However, as always, this blog is 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.

(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