Rider doctor says wearing face masks inside helmets may restrict breathing

As part of the government's guidelines to combat the spread of the coronavirus, face masks are required to be worn at all times while out of our homes. However, one doctor expressed caution that face masks, when worn under a helmet (especially full-face and modular kinds), may restrict breathing and could lead to blackouts.

Riding while wearing a face mask under your helmet may lead to difficulty breathing. This could lead to blackouts or other serious conditions, according to a medical doctor, who also rides a motorcycle himself.

Dr. Tommy Lim, a rider and surgeon, says that motorcycle riders must take caution when wearing a face mask under their helmet. Face masks, which are designed to filter the air, may restrict breathing, which is important when riding. With less oxygen entering the body while engaging in this strenuous activity, it may lead to a loss of consciousness. This can be dangerous when riding, especially when the heart rate is elevated and adrenalin may kick in.

“Surgical masks restrict your breathing. This can be fatal at high speeds when your adrenalin kicks in. Adrenalin will cause your heartbeat to double depending on your speed. This, in effect, will make you breathe faster and these masks will restrict your breathing and give your heart a hard time. Next, your brain will also suffer due to lack of oxygen until you blackout.”

Dr. Lim pointed out that this is not limited to high-speed riding. At any given time while riding, a number of factors could raise a motorcycle rider's heartbeat, which requires more oxygen to be inhaled. But this may be inhibited by the face mask.

For example, he says, riding during a very warm and humid afternoon can cause a person's heartbeat to rise. A simple bump on the road (that a rider didn't notice) could also raise the heartbeat due to adrenaline kicking after a last-second evasive maneuver. These factors could be dangerous for the motorcycle rider if he or she is wearing a mask.

Signs of breathing trouble

There are warning signs you can spot if the face mask is causing you difficulty in breathing. If you suddenly feel uncomfortable and find yourself trying to catch your breath while riding with a mask on, pull over to the shoulder as quickly and safely as you can. Remove your helmet, including the face mask, and call for help.

Law vs life

Since it is now illegal to go outside without a face mask, which rule to follow may be a bit of a conundrum. With several checkpoints throughout the country monitoring people's movements, not wearing a mask may not be a risk many riders are willing to take. 

Dr. Lim advises wearing our usual balaclava under the helmet but without a surgical or N95 mask underneath. 

“Although the balaclava does not offer the same protection as a surgical mask or N95 mask against pathogens [coronavirus], it is still better than wearing nothing at all and it lets air pass through more freely.”

While not wearing a mask under the helmet, the risk of catching the virus may still be very low since the nature of the motorcycle makes it an ideal physical distancing vehicle (especially with no backriding allowed). It's still much less risky than sharing an enclosed space with other passengers like in a car, van, bus, or train. Dr. Lim also reminds readers that COVID-19 spreads by airborne droplets. The virus itself is not airborne and droplets do not stay in the air for too long.

For frontline-motorcycle riders like partner-riders of Lalamove, GrabFood, etc., Dr. Lim still advises them to wear a surgical mask (at the very minimum) since situations like long queues at checkpoints where they almost rub elbows with fellow courier services riders are frequent.

We only hope that our lawmakers are made aware of this conundrum and the serious health risk wearing a face mask may pose for riders. Perhaps a suitable compromise that prevents the spread of the virus without compromising the riders' health can be found.

We still advise that motorcycle riders to follow government regulations.

Don't hoard

In closing, Dr. Lim also advises everyone not to hoard essential medical supplies. He shares that this behavior is frustrating because it leaves those in the medical field who really need it with little to none at all.

“It is wrong to hoard these medical supplies. Wala na tuloy natitira para sa amin.”

* Special thanks to Iñaki Jose of Ride n Tandem