Fact check: Face masks can be unsafe for children under 2, but not for most adults
The claim: Putting a face mask on a baby or small child will cause them to pass out or die of lack of oxygen. It also happens slowly in adults.
To slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended people wear cloth face coverings in settings where it's difficult to maintain social distancing.
But claims have been circulating about the dangers of face masks to people who wear them, including that they cause hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen in the body's tissue.
One Facebook post from user Amy Cox Jones warns that putting a face mask on a child will cause them to pass out and die. Her post, which had more than 8,500 shares as of Friday morning, includes a photo of an infant who appears to be napping while wearing a cloth mask.
"FYI – putting a mask on a baby or small child will make them pass out and possibly kill them due to hypoxia," the post says. "Most parents will mistake this for a nap."
While Jones' post correctly cautions against using face masks on very young children – a warning included in CDC guidelines – her post also implies that face masks are harmful for adults for the same reason.
"Same thing will happen to you," the post says. "It'll just take longer."
Jones, who has written other posts claiming face masks do not stop the spread of the virus and can be dangerous to those who wear them, did not respond to a USA TODAY request for comment.
Official recommendations about cloth face coverings
The CDC has recommended that people wear cloth face coverings in public because there's evidence people with the novel coronavirus can spread the disease even if they don't have symptoms.
A mask helps block the spread of respiratory droplets when a person is talking, sneezing or coughing, according to the CDC.
The CDC's guidance excludes some people from the recommendation to wear masks, including children younger than 2. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers similar guidance for children "due to risks of suffocation."
That's because children younger than 2 can't communicate if they are having trouble breathing, said Dr. Jennifer Shu, a certified pediatrician and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
"They may not have the motor skills or coordination to remove a secured mask if (they are) having breathing difficulty or are overheated," she said in an email.
The same guidance is true for older children or adults who can't take a mask off by themselves or who have trouble breathing, according to the CDC and pediatrics academy guidelines. But Shu said older children with respiratory problems may still be able to tolerate masks for short periods if they are in a situation where wearing one is important.
Face shields could be a good alternative for children with respiratory ailments like asthma or cystic fibrosis, she said.
Do face coverings cause hypoxia?
While Jones' post is correct about face coverings for children, the post incorrectly implies that any adult wearing a cloth face covering will suffer from hypoxia.
The claim has circulated online in several other countries as well, according to the Poynter Institute.
In a widely read May 15 Facebook post, Dr. Jennifer L. Kasten, a practicing pathologist in Ohio, addressed some of those concerns, pointing out that medical personnel often wear masks for extended periods of time but don't turn into "zombified surgeons."
"The porous nature of the material used for both medical-grade masks and cloth masks fully permits normal respiration," she wrote. "If you can inhale through it, you can exhale through it. There is no trapping and recirculating of air (otherwise it would blow up like a balloon when you breathe out)."
Shu, who pointed to Kasten's Facebook post when asked whether masks pose a danger of hypoxia to healthy older children and adults, said she would also recommend parents with questions about masks or other issues call their pediatricians.
More:Fact check: What's true and what's false about coronavirus?
What about adults and face masks?
CDC officials did not respond to a USA TODAY request for comment on claims about face masks and hypoxia. But a CDC spokesperson did tell Reuters in a May 5 article that masks are unlikely to cause another condition called hypercapnia, or excessive carbon dioxide in a person's bloodstream, in people who wear them in public.
"The CO2 will slowly build up in the mask over time. However, the level of CO2 likely to build up in the mask is mostly tolerable to people exposed to it," the statement said. "You might get a headache but you most likely (would) not suffer the symptoms observed at much higher levels of CO2."
But oxygen intake can cause discomfort for those wearing N95 respirators, which medical professionals wear to reduce exposure to airborne droplets.
Photos:Coronavirus mask shortages leave people with makeshift solutions
A group of Stanford University researchers have developed a mask that researchers say can counteract those effects. According to a Stanford University article about the project, N95 respirators can reduce oxygen intake by 5% to 20%.
The CDC told Snopes that N95 respirators could cause the buildup of carbon dioxide over time, which can also be mitigated by feeding in oxygen or simply taking a break and removing the mask.
But the same effects are not likely in people wearing cloth face masks, especially for the brief amount of time they are in public.
Our ruling: Partly false
While the Facebook post correctly states that parents should not place face masks on their young children, the post incorrectly implies that all masks wearers will suffer from hypoxia, which is not supported by science.
For that reason, we rate this claim PARTLY FALSE.
Our fact-check sources:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Recommendations for cloth face covers
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Important information about your cloth face coverings
- American Academy of Pediatrics: Masks and children during COVID-19
- Los Angeles Times:Should kids wear face masks? We asked a pediatrician
- Reuters: Partly false claim: Continually wearing a mask causes hypercapnia
- Poynter: It is not true that masks cause hypoxia. This hoax is now viral and dangerous
- Dr. Jennifer L. Kasten: Facebook post on safety of masks
Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, at 515-284-8254, or on Twitter at @DMRIanR.
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