Despite being an effective tool in slowing the spread of COVID-19, face masks can’t seem to catch a break these days.
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They fog up our glasses.
They cause some of us to break out.
They can be a source of anxiety.
And now, there’s one more thing to add to the list — sore throats. Some people have reported getting them after wearing their masks for longer periods of time — and not cleaning them. So, if you’ve been leaving that one mask in the car, wearing it over and over again and wondering why you keep getting a sore throat, keep reading to learn how to clean up your routine.
We know that we need to wash our hands regularly and clean high-touch surfaces and our living spaces thoroughly. So, it’s not totally surprising that a dirty mask can cause a sore throat. But it’s not the only thing. So, we asked family medicine physician Neha Vyas, MD, to explain why sore throats occur and how a germy mask and a few other variables can lead to them.
What causes a sore throat and do certain people get them more often?
“Sore throats can be caused by viruses, bacteria or environmental irritants. They could also be caused by vocal strain (using your voice too much), dry air, or a condition called gastroesophageal reflux, or GERD,” explains Dr. Vyas. She adds that anyone can get sore throats, but people with weakened immune systems, allergy sufferers and those who use their voices often may be especially prone to them.
Why might we get a sore throat after wearing a mask for a long time?
“Mask wearers often have to speak louder for others to hear. This may cause vocal strain,” says Dr. Vyas. “Other times, it may be from viruses or germs residing in unwashed or unclean masks, either from using them frequently without washing them or taking them on and off with unclean hands.” According to Dr. Vyas, dirty masks definitely make things worse because when you wear one, you end up breathing in bacteria or viruses that might be trapped in the mask.
Besides washing our masks regularly, what else can we do to prevent sore throats?
“Try to limit the number of times that you touch or remove your mask,” says Dr. Vyas. And when we do need to remove our masks, she urges us to make sure that our hands are clean when we take them off or put them on.
Dr. Vyas says a sore throat can be treated with over-the-counter throat sprays or lozenges. Sometimes, an over-the-counter antihistamine or anti-inflammatory medicine like acetaminophen or ibuprofen could help if you are able to take these medications. But if you’re not sure why you’re experiencing a sore throat or getting one quite often, she stresses that it’s important to talk to your primary care doctor.
How to clean cloth face masks
To reduce the chances of getting a sore throat because of a dirty mask, here are some helpful mask cleaning tips from the CDC.
How to wash your mask in a washing machine
You can wash your mask with the rest of your laundry. Use regular laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth used to make the mask. If you have sensitive skin, use a mild detergent.
How to wash your mask by hand
This requires a few extra steps:
- Before you start, check the label to see if your bleach is intended for disinfection. Some bleach products, such as those designed for safe use on colored clothing, may not be suitable for disinfection.
- Make sure you’re in a well-ventilated area.
- Prepare a bleach solution. Use a bleach containing 5.25%–8.25% sodium hypochlorite and mix it with room temperature water. Don’t use a bleach product if the percentage is not in this range or is not specified. And don’t use bleach that is past the expiration date and never mix household bleach with ammonia or any other cleanser.
- You can mix either: 5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) of 5.25%–8.25% bleach in per gallon of room temperature water or 4 teaspoons of 5.25%–8.25% bleach in per quart of room temperature water.
- Soak your masks in the bleach solution for 5 minutes.
- Discard the bleach solution down the drain and rinse your masks thoroughly with cool or room temperature water.
- Make sure to completely dry your masks after washing.
How to dry your face masks
In the dryer — Use the highest heat setting and leave in the dryer until completely dry.
Air drying — Lay flat and allow to completely dry. If possible, place the mask in direct sunlight.
“While wearing a mask might be perceived to be a hassle by some people, it’s important to continue to do so to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other germs,” says, Dr. Vyas.