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I'm Not Contagious, but I Still Need My Face Mask

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Dear person in the elevator who whisked your child away from me and pressed against the far wall while staring at me in horror,

Don’t worry, I’m not contagious, but I may be allergic to you or some scent lingering about you. You can be at ease, I am wearing my mask for my own benefit. I didn’t appreciate the wide-eyed staring as if I had two heads and was about to eat your child, but I appreciate the distance because I am very allergic to scented products and the less exposure the better.

I have a mast cell disorder and many things that travel on the air we breathe can cause my body to react as if it is being attacked, and as if the foreign invaders must be dealt with. My mast cells release or trigger the release of chemicals meant to protect the body from disease or poison, but it over reacts to things which may be tiny, unperceived by others, or even pleasant to you such as scented products. I even have had life-threatening anaphylaxis from hand sanitizer and natural scents like lavender, vanilla, or essential oils.


I may not have explained myself in the moment as I try not to breathe much, or at all, when I am near strangers because they have usually used one of the many scented products American society teaches us will make us smell better, cleaner, sexier, etc. And I did react a bit to whatever scented product was wafting about the elevator despite my mask. I may have started wheezing, wilted in my chair like a plant in too much sun, my eyes were burning and I left feeling weak and flushing. I wear a mask because it reduces the frequency and strength of symptoms, giving me a chance to move away from whatever inhaled substance may be triggering my mast cell disorder in that moment, or to get to a less scented area where I can take my rescue medicine without further exposure.

An art piece of a man wearing a decorated face mask, giving a thumbs up.

I don’t blame you for your response. Some people do wear paper doctor masks when they have the flu, but next time you see someone in a respirator or medical mask, try giving a smile and a nod, or even a compliment about something we may have put a lot of time into – like the design on our mask. Yes, you could even smile if you move away. Even if they do have an illness you could catch, like the flu, and they are wearing the mask for your protection, they are still a human being – not the three-eyed swamp monster. They are probably exhausted and could use a smile. And if they are like me, they probably miss the public niceties and contact with other people that our condition has taken from us. Your polite nod or kind words might be just what we needed to help us get through a difficult outing.

Please don’t feel bad if you have whisked your child away from a masked person. But next time, please remember that they, like you, are only human and might enjoy a kind smile.

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Originally published: May 25, 2017
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