Does Wearing a Mask Help with Outdoor Allergies? Health Experts Weigh In
The benefits are two-fold, according to medical professionals.
Though it became the accessory du jour out of necessity, not choice, it turns out the humble face mask may be able to do even more than protect us from COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses. They may be able to help mitigate the effects of seasonal allergies.
"Face coverings used to help stop the spread of COVID-19 can also double as a way to filter out foreign substances like pollen from trees and plants that cause seasonal allergies," says Dr. Niket Sonpal, an internist in New York City. "When these substances enter the body through the nose or mouth, they can cause the body's immune system to attempt to rid itself of the particles by coughing, sneezing, or performing other allergic reactions." But when you wear a face covering, it acts as a "wall" that blocks those particles from entering the body and provoking allergies, he explains.
Choosing a Face Mask
Whether you prefer to wear surgical masks or cloth ones, you'll reap the benefits, as all face coverings are helpful when it comes to seasonal allergies, says Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist with the Allergy and Asthma Network. Still, not all masks are created entirely equal—both for stopping the spread of COVID-19 and for protecting against allergens. "The best types of masks are the ones that fit snugly around the mouth and nose to create a seal, blocking any foreign particles from entering," says Dr. Sonpal. "N95 masks are known to be the most effective masks, because of their multiple layers of polypropylene fibers which catch and prevent any outside particles from being breathed in through the nose or mouth." Surgical masks follow suit, experts say.
If you're using a fabric mask—like many do on a daily basis—look for one that has two layers of fabric rather than one, says Dr. Sonpal. "A singular layer is likely to let in more particles than a mask that has two separate pieces of fabric or a filter paper." And, if possible, opt for a mask with adjustable ear straps to ensure you get the most snug fit around the face.
It's also important to wash your mask frequently—ideally daily, says Dr. Parikh. (Medical-grade masks cannot be washed, but should be changed frequently for the same reason.) When not washed properly, pollen can build up on cloth masks, explains Dr. Sonpal. "When the mask is brought to the nose and mouth, that buildup of pollen can easily be breathed in and result in more severe allergies."
And don't forget: There are many ways you can work with your board-certified allergist to come up with an effective plan to combat seasonal allergies—wearing a mask isn't necessarily the most effective solution. "When it comes to seasonal allergies, some suffer asthma or breathing symptoms, some suffer eye, nose, skin symptoms," says Dr. Parikh. "It's best to take preventative medications early in the season and regularly." Also, keep windows closed during peak pollen times, particularly the early morning, on windy days, or if someone is mowing the lawn outside. You should also change your clothes when you get home, then shower to avoid bringing pollen in with you.
If you do experience symptoms, try over-the-counter remedies like nasal spray and oral antihistamines, says Dr. Sonpal. Sinus rinsing can also flush out allergens and remove any pollen, dust, or debris.