May 12, 2020 / 4:46 PM / 23 days ago

Partly false claim: Staying at home and wearing a face mask weakens the immune system

A widely shared claim on social media alleges that staying at home and wearing face masks for a prolonged period weakens the immune system. The claim, which has been shared on Facebook over 30,000 times as of May 11, 2020, is misleading.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Examples of the post are visible here and here .

The claim comes after weeks of lockdown and social isolation imposed worldwide to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus ( here ). There is no treatment or vaccine available for COVID-19 yet ( here ).

Staying at home weakens your immune system - partly true

Research has found that loneliness and social isolation can have a direct adverse effect on health, such as impaired immunity, depression, poor sleep quality and poor cardiovascular health ( here , here ).

According to a study led by UCLA professor Steve Cole ( here ), loneliness and social isolation can increase inflammation (the immune’s system response to fight off a threhere ) and decrease immune capacity.

The American Psychological Association notes here that loneliness “can occur when people are surrounded by others” and that it is defined by the level of satisfaction a person has with their “connectedness” (meaning the state of being connected and having a close relationship with other things or people here ).

To mitigate the effects of loneliness that might be triggered by social isolation amidst the new coronavirus outbreak and bolster the immune system, experts point to the importance of virtual connection to maintain social ties. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, told the Washington Post that receiving support from others, as well as being “a source of support” to others, can have positive effects ( here ).

The Washington Post’s report also notes that the “sense of security” people obtain from friends and family helps them to cope with stressful situations in a much physiologically calmer way, which “can lead to a stronger immune system” ( here ).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stresses the relevance of “staying connected while staying away” through phone calls, video chat or social media ( here ).

Wearing a face mask weakens the immune system - false

Reuters found no expert evidence to support the claim that wearing face masks weakens the immune system. Health authorities, including the CDC, recommend the use of masks as a way of strengthening social distancing ( here ) to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The Atlantic has reported on the benefits of wearing masks, which not only protect the individual but more importantly the people they come into contact with ( here ).

The CDC encourages people who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as those who are immunocompromised, to wear a face covering when around others ( bit.ly/35RBlFz ).

A CDC spokesperson told Reuters a cloth mask is a way to contain respiratory secretions right at the source. “The mask traps the droplets before they spread into the environment,” she said. “Therefore, ‘my mask protects you, and your mask protects me!’ It’s a way of strengthening the social distancing that we are already doing” (here).

There are concerns that some people who wear face masks might become complacent about other important measures, like social distancing. The World Health Organization warns of potential risks for healthy people wearing masks in community settings, such as “self-contamination by touching and reusing (a) contaminated mask” and a “false sense of security, leading to potentially less adherence to other preventive measures such as physical distancing and hand hygiene” ( bit.ly/3aueKzh ).

Reuters recently debunked a misleading claim here that face-masks cause hypercapnia. While  breathing in excessive amounts of CO2 for large amounts of time can be dangerous, it is unlikely that the general public would suffer from these complications by wearing a mask. Most people would wear face coverings on short stints outside their home as a complementary measure to social distancing ( here ).  

Conclusion

To maintain a healthy immune system, Harvard Medicine recommends following general health guidelines, such as eating a diet high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight and getting enough sleep ( here ).

Various publications have reported on the challenges around staying healthy - both mentally and physically - amidst the pandemic, including Forbes ( here ), the World Economic Forum ( here ), the Atlantic ( here ), and Harvard Business Review ( here ).

VERDICT

Partly false. Loneliness can weaken the immune system. To avoid this, experts note the importance of maintaining social ties while socially distancing. There is no evidence wearing face masks as a supplement to social isolation weakens the immune system.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts  here .

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