As we head into our second pandemic spring, many of us may be itching to give up our masks. But for the 19.2 million American adults suffering from seasonal allergies, there’s another reason to keep wearing your mask.
While cloth and medical masks do a good job of protecting us from viral particles, studies show masks also can be effective at filtering common allergens, which typically float around in much larger sizes, making them easier to block. Pine tree pollen, for example, is about 800 times larger than the coronavirus, said Dr. David Lang, an allergist at Cleveland Clinic. Even before the pandemic, he advised patients with severe allergies to wear a mask outside, especially for prolonged activities like gardening or yardwork.
Using masks to alleviate allergy symptoms can require a bit of “trial and error,” said Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist at N.Y.U. Langone Health. But over all, “if there’s less pollen going into your nose and mouth, you’re less likely to have an allergy attack,” she said.
Israeli researchers recently studied how much difference wearing a mask could make for allergy sufferers with mild, moderate and severe symptoms. Using data collected from 215 nurses who used surgical masks or N95 masks during a two-week period, they found that among the 44 nurses with severe allergy symptoms, nearly 40 percent experienced less sneezing, runny nose and stuffy nose when they wore either a surgical or N95 mask. Among the 91 nurses with moderate symptoms, 30 percent improved when they wore a surgical mask; that rose to 40 percent when they wore an N95. Among the 80 nurses who started the study with mild symptoms, 43 nurses, or about 54 percent, felt their symptoms improved while wearing a surgical or N95 mask, said Dr. Amiel Dror, a physician-scientist at Galilee Medical Center and Bar-Ilan University Azrieli Faculty of Medicine and the lead author on the study.
Mask use was also more effective for the nurses with seasonal allergies than those with year-round symptoms. Wearing a mask did not solve the problem of itchy eyes, according to the September report, published in The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.
Although the findings suggest that wearing a mask can reduce allergy symptoms for some people, the researchers noted that more study is needed. It could be that the nurses experienced fewer symptoms because, when they weren’t working, they were staying home and avoiding crowds during lockdowns, and thus had less exposure to allergens in the environment. But the fact that mask wearing, which covers the nose and mouth, was associated with improvements in nasal symptoms, but not eye irritation, suggests that masking probably did help reduce many allergy symptoms.
In addition to filtering out allergens, wearing a mask also makes the air in our nasal cavities warmer and more humid, said Dr. Dror. “We know that dry air and cold air sometimes has the ability to elicit a reaction in the nose,” he said. “This is an extra benefit of wearing a mask. With all the bad, you can find some good.”
Protection varies mask to mask, depending on the fit and, for cloth masks, the weave of the fabric. And unless you wear a mask at all times, you may still be affected by indoor allergens such as dust mites or pollen carried through open windows on spring breezes.
“It can help, but it’s not necessarily going to take away all your symptoms,” said Dr. Sandra Lin, a professor of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “Pretty much everyone’s wearing masks most of the time now, and people are still getting allergy symptoms.”
Here are some more tips to reduce your symptoms during allergy season.
Protect your eyes. Dr. Lang recommends people who suffer from allergies wear glasses or sunglasses when they’re outside, which helps block allergens like tree pollen from making direct contact with eyes.
Wash and change your mask frequently. “The last thing you want is allergen getting trapped in it,” Dr. Parikh said. She recommends patients change their clothes when they get home and shower before sleep, to ensure that pollen doesn’t stick to their skin, and wash reusable masks frequently. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends washing a cloth mask after each use.
Find a mask that doesn’t irritate your skin. Choosing the right mask for an allergy-prone wearer can also be important. People with sensitive skin may react to dyes in some fabric masks and should use perfume-free detergents. Or choose a surgical or medical grade mask, which are less likely to irritate skin. “My allergy sufferers have very sensitive skin because the same critters that make them sneeze or cough also can irritate their skin,” Dr. Parikh said.
Talk to a doctor if your allergy symptoms are severe. “If people are continuing to have symptoms that interfere with normal activity — if they’re missing work, missing school, their sleep is disrupted at night — see a physician,” Dr. Lang said. “There are other ways we can help. You shouldn’t be suffering needlessly.”