Hydrating the respiratory tract: An alternative explanation why masks lower severity of COVID-19

Biophys J. 2021 Mar 16;120(6):994-1000. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2021.02.002. Epub 2021 Feb 12.


The seasonality of respiratory diseases has been linked, among other factors, to low outdoor absolute humidity and low indoor relative humidity, which increase evaporation of water in the mucosal lining of the respiratory tract. We demonstrate that normal breathing results in an absorption-desorption cycle inside facemasks, in which supersaturated air is absorbed by the mask fibers during expiration, followed by evaporation during inspiration of dry environmental air. For double-layered cotton masks, which have considerable heat capacity, the temperature of inspired air rises above room temperature, and the effective increase in relative humidity can exceed 100%. We propose that the recently reported, disease-attenuating effect of generic facemasks is dominated by the strong humidity increase of inspired air. This elevated humidity promotes mucociliary clearance of pathogens from the lungs, both before and after an infection of the upper respiratory tract has occurred. Effective mucociliary clearance can delay and reduce infection of the lower respiratory tract, thus mitigating disease severity. This mode of action suggests that masks can benefit the wearer even after an infection in the upper respiratory tract has occurred, complementing the traditional function of masks to limit person-to-person disease transmission. This potential therapeutical use should be studied further.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19 / pathology*
  • COVID-19 / prevention & control*
  • COVID-19 / virology
  • Humans
  • Humidity
  • Masks / virology*
  • Respiratory System / virology*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / physiology
  • Severity of Illness Index*