“In the springtime, we started seeing it among health-care professionals first,” said Anna Chien, a doctor at the Johns Hopkins Department of Dermatology who started seeing cases of maskne — mask-induced acne — as soon as masks became an essential and necessary part of daily life.
I saw the red, itchy irritations immediately bloom on both my kids’ faces when they began playing hockey while wearing their masks underneath their helmets and face cages.
The skin around their ears also broke out after sitting through all-day virtual meetings or classes while using over-the-ear headphones (which they switched to after hours of wearing ear buds hurt their ears).
And no wonder — like so many other children, they now easily clock nine hours a day in virtual classes, appointments, workouts, music lessons and chats. So much for reducing screen time.
And it wasn’t just my kids. Weird things began happening to every member of my family — brand new irritations, aches and pains. And as we visited each physician, we heard some version of “Yeah, we’ve been seeing a lot of this lately” in each exam room.
My 16-year-old got to meet my lovely optometrist years before I thought he’d need to.
“I’ve had so many kids come in, just like him,” LaMia Jones said after she gave my son an eye exam because his eyes hurt from those long hours online. No damage to his eyes yet, but she suggested we get a pair of blue-light blockers.
I headed back to her a month later myself because the dry eye I was having was wrecking writing in the evening and made any kind of mascara-wearing impossible — crucial in this age of masks, when our eyes are such a part of communicating.
My doctor looked at my left eye and said she saw an abrasion.
“Do you remember getting any debris in there?” Jones asked. And then I remembered chipping off a messed-up mortar glob on my lockdown-inspired home-improvement shower-tile project without safety glasses (bad idea, I know). These are the two things — computer use and home improvement projects — that a recent article in Optometry Times pointed to as the source of pandemic ocular woes.
While I was chipping tile, the husband was upstairs in his home office, working extra hours as his clients went into pandemic overdrive. We were lucky that way, able to work from home and avoiding the fate of thousands of Americans who lost their livelihoods during the pandemic.
But he was in constant pain with a toothache, so I scheduled him at the dentist after I couldn’t take much more of his moaning.
“They said I’m grinding,” husband announced when he returned from the appointment. “And I was grinding so hard, I cracked a tooth. I’ve never had that before.”
For the first time in a while, Mr. Dad Jeans was right on trend.
“I’ve seen more tooth fractures in the last six weeks than in the previous six years,” Tammy Chen, a dentist in Manhattan, wrote in the New York Times in September.
The American Dental Association Health Policy Institute reported this fall that grinding and clenching cases are up nearly 60 percent and they’re seeing 53 percent more cracked teeth than they did last year — all largely stress-induced.
And how about those backs? Just thinking of nine months hunched over a laptop at the kitchen table hurts.
Tension headaches, non-spinal joint pain, cervical pain and lower back pain are all rising, according to the American Chiropractic Association.
The No. 1 cause? Lack of movement, the group says, as the commute between our bed, our desk and the fridge while we wait for the pandemic to pass is substantially smaller than our pre-covid routines.
The effects of lifestyle change have even made it all the way down to our feet.
Over the summer, I began having terrible foot pain in the back of my heel. It wasn’t until I dug my favorite pair of pumps out of the back of my closet for a nice-clothes work assignment, put them on and exhaled with an “ahhh” that I realized what had happened. My feet have been trained by decades of three-inch heels, so all this flat-footed house time was confusing my muscles.
“Footwear — or lack thereof — may be to blame for the upsurge in cases,” according to the American Podiatric Medical Association, which recommends wearing work shoes for a couple hours a day. (Flipping pancakes in high heels won’t feel weird at all.)
But these are all irritations that are treatable with the right care and attention — a price worth paying to save the lives of others.
There are some concerns arising that are more profound and frightening — like the crushing effect the pandemic is having on our mental health, particularly that of children. Mine have been struggling with being physically isolated from their peers, their routine, their teachers and activities.
Sadly, they aren’t alone.
In March, emergency rooms saw a drop in mental health visits among children. Kids were home, testing and grades were on hold. For many, it was novel and a little fun, the usual stress of finals season gone.
That all changed when it became clear that children wouldn’t be returning to classrooms and routines anytime soon.
“From August to September, we saw an uptick in depression, an uptick in suicide attempts resulting in ER visits and hospitalization, an uptick in multiple suicide attempts,” said Adelaide Robb, division chief of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Children’s National Hospital in D.C.
Robb started hearing the same story from emergency rooms in other states. “From California and Washington to New York, we’re all seeing these increases,” she said.
And what’s really tough is that there’s no end in sight. The cold weather surge in cases has America setting records for infections daily, and the death toll passed a quarter million people this week.
Even with good news about vaccines and President-elect Joe Biden working on a plan to tackle the virus, the end is months away — which can feel like years for young people.
Suicide hotlines (1-800-273-TALK) and mental health help networks are essential now. Robb suggested that parents check with their employers for benefits that include mental wellness and self-care resources.
Getting through this pandemic isn’t easy. But the sacrifices we’re making are a united effort to make sure more lives aren’t lost to this disease. It’s the cost of keeping a society safe so that soon we can throw away the masks, smile with more than our eyes and hug tight the people who are suffering most of all.