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Not Just COVID: 4 Other Ways Face Masks Can Help Your Health

Allergies? Asthma? Air pollution? Your mask may add another layer of protection

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Olga Bereslavskaya / Getty Images

By now, most of us know the preventive measures that can help to keep COVID-19 at bay: vaccines and boosters, improved ventilation, staying away from people who are sick and yes, wearing a face mask in crowded indoor settings.

But, it turns out, a face mask can come in handy for more than COVID protection, with potential benefits that range from allergy relief to lowering the risk of heart disease. Here are four other ways a face mask may benefit your health.

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1. Allergies and asthma

Cough? Runny nose? Fever?

It may not be a bug. An estimated 40 million to 60 million Americans experience cold-like symptoms — often referred to as hay fever, or allergic rhinitis — as the result of an allergic reaction to mold spores, pollen, dust mites and the like, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.

Similar to its role in helping to block virus particles, a face mask can also help to prevent allergens in the air from getting inside your nose, throat and lungs, and causing these reactions, says the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.

In fact, among a pool of 50 study participants with pollen allergies, 92 percent described their nasal symptoms as moderate to severe before the start of the pandemic. That rate dropped to 56 percent during the height of the pandemic when they were wearing face masks, according to the research, published in the American Journal of Otolaryngology. Sneezing and runny nose were among the symptoms that improved the most.

Keeping allergens out can also be helpful for the estimated 25 million Americans with asthma since pollen can trigger an attack, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation says. Consider wearing one when pollen counts are high.

2. Pollution

From the whiff of a cigarette to tailpipe exhaust, a mask can protect you from the harmful effects of ambient air pollution.

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When you inhale polluted air, the soot (or particulate matter) can seep into the bloodstream by way of the lungs and cause serious health problems, according to the World Health Organization. And older adults are among those who are more susceptible to these complications.

“The big killer is actually ischemic heart disease,” or heart problems caused by narrowed heart arteries, says Richard Peltier, associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Research funded by the Environmental Protection Agency found that long-term exposure to air pollution accelerates the buildup of calcium in the coronary arteries, which can restrict blood flow to the heart and increase the likelihood of a heart attack. It’s estimated that between 7 million and 9 million premature deaths annually are linked to air pollution. “And most of that is cardiovascular disease [and] heart attacks,” Peltier says.

A mask can help to block some air pollution particles that you might otherwise inhale, which is why people who work with dust, debris and other pollutants often wear them.

Some masks are better than others at keeping pollution particles out, Peltier notes — he recommends an N95.

3. Flu, RSV and other respiratory ailments

COVID-19 isn’t the only respiratory illness that’s making people sick right now.

During winter especially, “many viruses circulate and cause respiratory diseases,” says Elie A. Saade, M.D., system director of medical quality and infection control at University Hospitals in Cleveland.

For example, there have been more than 25 million illnesses, 280,000 hospitalizations and 17,000 deaths from flu so far this season, according to Jan. 27 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And throughout the fall, patients sick with RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, were flooding hospitals throughout the country.

While the viruses that cause these illnesses — flu, RSV and COVID — are different, they all spread in similar ways: by small and large droplets that travel through the air. But high-quality masks, such as an N95 or similar, can help to block these germs that make us sick.

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“Trying to reduce the chance you get sick with a respiratory virus during respiratory season makes sense,” says Abraar Karan, M.D., an infectious disease fellow at Stanford University.

What’s more, recent research published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology suggests that cold weather can make our respiratory systems more susceptible to infection, not to mention other respiratory problems, like difficulty breathing. But masks can “help reduce the exposure of the respiratory system to cold air by providing a layer of protection against the cold,” says Sadeer Al-Kindi, M.D., a cardiologist at University Hospitals Harrington Heart & Vascular Institute in Cleveland.

Don’t forget about taking other measures when it comes to preventing respiratory illnesses, Saade adds. Get your flu shot each year, your pneumococcal vaccine when you are eligible, and stay up to date on your COVID vaccines. There isn’t a vaccine for RSV yet but there could be soon. Also: Wash your hands and opt for outdoor activities when possible.

4. The heart

Dodging COVID, flu and other infections can help to keep your heart healthy, too.

In a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, researchers linked recent infections such as pneumonia and urinary tract infections to an increased risk of heart attack or stroke. A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the incidence of hospital admissions for a heart attack was six times higher after a bout with the flu.

Possible reasons? Infections can cause an inflammatory response that can make a person more prone to blood clots. “It’s a trigger for the blood vessels to get blocked up and puts us at higher risk of serious events like heart attack and stroke,” Kamakshi Lakshminarayan, M.D., an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and a coauthor on the Journal of the American Heart Association study, said in a news release.

Her advice? To protect your ticker, do what you can to help prevent infections in the first place.

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