On May 31 2020, Facebook user Lena Kovacs shared the following screenshot of a redacted post, in which a person claimed their neeninet-year-old daughter developed pleurisy solely due to her use of a face mask in her job at “a huge grocery store chain”:
Text-based versions of the post circulated as well, and they read in full:
⚠️Be careful HEALTHY people, shared from a friend….
My daughter. 19 yrs old. Healthy. Frontline worker at a huge grocery store chain. Started feeling sick about two weeks ago. Side and back pain. Nausea.. Chest pain. Primary doc sent her for chest x-ray.. Something “lit up” on right side. Sent for MRI. Cat scan. Ultra sound of back and abdomen areas..NOTHING.. While at work was unable to breathe. Chest pain. Rushed to e.r. quarantined. Tested for covid. Young. By herself because no one can be with her. Turns out its pleurisy.. An inflection of the outside of the lining of the lungs. They basically tell her.. It’s because she has been wearing a mask for over 8 hours a day 5-6 days a week. Breathing in her own bacteria. Carbon dioxide.. Caused an infection. And now she is in severe pain. Has to be off work with no pay.. But you wont see that on social media! She’s 19. Healthy. And now is bed bound and struggling to breathe. Antibiotics. Steroids. Breathing treatments.
Appended to the image- was a photograph of a Fox News broadcast, a chyron for which read “[World Health Organization/WHO] Guidance on Masks,” and a subsequent statement that masks should “only be used by healthcare workers.” We previously addressed the context of early WHO guidance about reserving face mask and PPE supplies for frontline medical professionals, here, here, and here:
Pleurisy is type of chest pain caused by a bacterial or viral infection.
The pleura is a thin layer of tissue that wraps your lungs. They fit snugly within your chest, which is lined with another thin layer of pleura.
These layers keep your bare lungs from rubbing against the wall of your chest cavity every time you breathe in. There’s a bit of fluid within the narrow space between the two layers of pleura to keep everything moving smoothly.
When you’re healthy, you never notice your pleura at work. But if your pleura has a problem, you’ll feel it.
When the pleurae are swollen and inflamed, they rub against each other in a very painful way each time your lungs expand. When you inhale deeply, cough, sneeze, or laugh, you’ll probably feel a sharp, stabbing pain in the area that’s affected.
Most of the time, pleurisy happens because of an infection. If your doctor treats your infection, that can make it — and the pain — go away.
Pleurisy is caused by bacteria or viruses, not by face masks or coverings.
A ‘Friend of a Friend’ Anecdote, or, Did Anyone Actually Develop Pleurisy from Wearing a Mask?
Like the post (‘Copied From an OSHA Certified Friend’) above, the story of the grocery store worker was suspiciously source-free. It also circulated at a time of widespread, global use of prophylactic masks and other face coverings.
News of the supposed mask-related pleurisy appeared to begin and end with the Facebook post and its iterations, despite people using masks to prevent others from getting sick for many, many years. Without a story to specifically check, the claim could easily spread in perpetuity as one of several anecdotes about the purported risks of wearing a face mask during a pandemic.
In short, the claim itself was dubious on its face.
Recycled Air, Recycled Claims
In our above-linked page “There’s No ‘New Evidence’ Face Masks Pose Health Risks to Healthy People During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” we addressed earlier rumors about “rebreathing” infected, exhaled air. In a broad May 2020 fact-check on the Plandemic video, experts explained:
Wrong Message on Masks
In attacking public health measures taken to address the pandemic in the U.S., [Plandemic’s Judy] Mikovits wrongly suggests that using masks could lead to people infecting themselves with their own breath. “Wearing the mask literally activates your own virus,” Mikovits said. “You’re getting sick from your own reactivated coronavirus expressions and if it happens to be SARS-CoV-2, then you’ve got a big problem.”
Experts were perplexed by what she meant and said the implication that simply breathing through a mask could lead to self-infection doesn’t square with science.
Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech who studies airborne disease transmission, told us: “If you’re shedding (breathing out) virus, then you’re already infected. Even without a mask, infected people who are shedding virus probably rebreathe some of their own viruses, but there are already billions times more viruses in your body. Hopefully, the mask is protecting other people from your exhalations.”
A Related Falsehood
A June 24 2020 Associated Press fact-check addressed a similar claim after Florida business owner and congressional candidate Jessi Melton claimed that “excessive use” of face masks can cause “fungal and bacterial pneumonia.”
Once again, that claim stood in conflict with all known science, as well as how masks work. Moreover, those knowledgeable about best practices and public health noted that the spread of mask disinformation was especially detrimental during a pandemic:
“There’s no evidence of masks leading to fungal or bacterial infections of the upper airway or the lower airway as in pneumonia,” said Davidson Hamer, infectious disease specialist and professor of global health and medicine at Boston University.
Hamer noted that bacterial growth could occur, in theory, if someone wore a mask that was already contaminated with moisture and became moldy. “I don’t know why anybody would do that. Theoretically, it could happen, but it’s highly unlikely with just typical mask use,” he said in a phone call with The Associated Press.
“It’s so highly unlikely with normal mask use,” Hamer explained. “There’s a real danger at spreading incorrect information like this, especially at a time when we really need to be encouraging more people to wear masks,” he added.
Experts Weigh in on the ‘Pleurisy from a Face Mask Claim’
After a North Carolina politician shared the claim a 19-year-old grocery store worker developed pleurisy due to face masks, WTVD consulted medical experts about the claim:
“It does not make any logical or medical sense,” said Dr. Momen Wahidi, a pulmonologist, or lung doctor, at Duke University Hospital.
We asked him to look at [state representative Michael] Speciale’s post, one of several similar social media claims linking masks and pleurisy.
Speciale’s post said it’s written by a woman named Jennifer Brown but there is no link to the woman’s Facebook page or anything that identifies her as a real person.
In the post, Brown said her teenage daughter is a grocery store worker who became very ill and that doctors not only determined the teen had pleurisy, but that it was caused by the mask she was required to wear, forcing her to breathe her own bacteria 40 hours a week.
But Wahidi said our lungs are specially equipped to handle the bacteria we inhale and exhale. “We breathe bacteria and chemicals all the time,” he said. “Our lungs have a defense mechanism and can fight bacteria … there’s no logical mechanism that wearing a face mask will cause you to have pleurisy or inflammation in your lungs,” he said.
Wahidi explained that there have “never been any reports of health effects or retention of carbon dioxide or lack of oxygen” due to the use of masks, and saliently observed that medical professionals have long worn face masks for eight to twelve hours shifts with no respiratory consequences prior to the pandemic.
ClickOnDetroit.com ran the claims by Dr. Frank McGeorge, who also indicated they were not medically sound:
As far as breathing your own bacteria, fortunately there are mechanisms that clear out any bacteria that might make it into our respiratory tract, and breathing with a mask doesn’t cause bacterial lung infections or pleurisy.
Perhaps the simplest way to think of the question is to recall that many health care providers, particularly operating room staff members, wear masks continuously for many hours, day after day, and don’t have harmful effects.
Trust Index: Not true
Dr. McGeorge is giving these claims a “not true” on the Trust Index.
There are no medial facts that support any of the posts. It does take a little while to get used to wearing a mask, but it’s not harmful.
In a very concise post about the claims, HealthFeedback.com noted:
Face mask filters are porous enough to allow gas molecules such as carbon dioxide and oxygen to pass through freely. Healthcare workers who wear masks for long periods of time do not demonstrate significant impairment in work performance, as would be the case if masks caused hypercapnia.
Many iterations of an anecdote about a healthy nineteen-year-old grocery store worker developing pleurisy specifically due to the fact she wore a face mask during her shifts was repeatedly debunked by doctors and public health experts asked about the story’s plausibility. As they noted, medical professionals have long worn masks during each shift for years on end, suffering no ill effects other than occasional skin irritation from mask friction. The rumor was one of many pieces of anti-mask propaganda spreading unchecked on Facebook, with the above iteration being shared more than 17,000 times without any sort of fact-check flag.