‘Anti-maskers’ say medical conditions prevent them from wearing masks, but doctors say that’s not a legitimate excuse

medical coronavirus flu virus nyc street face mask gloves covid19 stores shut down closed restaurants social distancing delivery cox 14
medical coronavirus flu virus nyc street face mask gloves covid19 stores shut down closed restaurants social distancing delivery cox 14

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  • Some people are claiming they’re “exempt” from mask wearing due to medical conditions they won’t disclose, according to one doctor on Twitter

  • Doctors say that even people with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease should wear masks in public, and that there are ways to make the practice safer and more comfortable. 

  • Other arguments against wearing masks have been more about politics and choice than health conditions. 

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Face masks are currently recommended, if not required, in many public settings throughout the US in order to can help protect wearers from contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus. 

That’s because they work. A recent study out of the UK, for example, showed that mandates to wear masks could be enough to contain an outbreak without a lockdown. 

Case reports have illustrated their effectiveness too, with two infected (and masked) hairstylists able to do their jobs on 140 masked customers without spreading the illness. 

But some people are saying they’re “exempt” from mandates requiring mask wearing in public because they have a medical condition that makes the practice risky, according to Dr. Alan Hawxby, a transplant surgeon at the Oklahoma University Medical Center, who posted about the phenomenon on Twitter. 

These so-called “anti-maskers” say they’re not required to disclose what that condition is, thanks to privacy laws like HIPAA. 

Some claim that the Americans With Disabilities Act protects them from disclosing their “medical condition.” 


But doctors say various conditions don’t excuse people from wearing masks, but rather emphasize the importance of wearing one correctly. 

Masks can come with uncomfortable side effects, but most rumors about why aren’t scientifically valid  

It’s true that wearing a mask can be annoying and uncomfortable, and for some people, the experience is beyond bothersome. As one Twitter user with asthma wrote in response to Hawxby’s post, the condition makes it “extremely hard to breathe when wearing the mask” and can cause him to “hyperventilate and almost pass out.” 

There have also been reports of medical professionals suffering serious skin damage after wearing the masks for long periods, causing the sweat and friction to damage the skin and open up the possibility of infection.

Unsubstantiated rumors have also circulated online, saying that continuous mask wearing can cause hypercapnia, a condition caused when too much carbon dioxide enters the blood and can lead to symptoms ranging from fatigue and headaches to seizures and coma, Reuters reported. 


Others have said they can’t breathe while wearing a mask and promoted medically invalid claims that the strips of fabric limit wearers’ oxygen intake. A doctor recently debunked this idea by measuring her heart rate and oxygen levels while wearing four differnet masks for five minutes each, finding no change in her ability to breathe normally and bring oxygen into her body.

“Though maybe inconvenient for some, you can still breathe,” she wrote. “As a physician, I urge you and ask you to please wear a mask to protect yourself and those who cannot safely wear a mask (many of my patients because they are under 2 years old).” 

If you do have a condition that makes mask-wearing especially cumbersome, there are ways to cope

Health experts say the solution isn’t forgoing masks altogether, but wearing ones better suited to the individual. 

For people with asthma or COPD, for example, the arthritis organization CreakyJoints recommends staying home as much as possible; picking times when it’s least hot, humid, and polluted when you do go out; practice; and choose one that’s comfortable, like a cloth mask made with a moisture-wicking and breathable fabric. 

The right mask fit is critical for healthcare workers, too, both for safety and comfort, Christopher R. Friese, a professor of nursing at the University of Michigan who was on a National Academy of Medicine panel on respiratory protection, told Business Insider. 

He said medical professionals and first responders should undergo a “fit test” which doesn’t only lead them to a mask that makes an appropriate seal on their faces, but also involves being screened for conditions like asthma, allergies, and claustrophobia that could make wearing certain types problematic. 

“There are times when we recommend one product over another because someone has health conditions, or if the fit is better,” Friese said. “In this pandemic, I fear that many settings are forgoing fit testing and that upfront screening for contraindications, which puts healthcare workers and first responders at risk.” 

A protester holds up a sign protesting wearing a mask at the Texas State Capital building on April 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas.
A protester holds up a sign protesting wearing a mask at the Texas State Capital building on April 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas.

Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Past movements have advocated against mask wearing for other reasons 

In 2013, a Missouri nurse chose not to get the flu vaccine and so her hospital required her to wear a face mask to protect patients. She refused, saying the mask was a “scarlet letter,” and arguing that masks are ineffective. She was fired. 

In 2015, The Ontario Nurses Association used a similar argument to rally against mask wearing requirements for those who didn’t get vaccinated. 

Among the lay public during coronavirus, people have refused to wear masks for various reasons, ranging from fears of racial profiling to beliefs that the government should not dictate what citizens do or do not wear.  

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