Wildfires and COVID-19 – a One-Two Punch

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Wildfires and COVID-19 - a One-Two Punch

The photos of forest fires in the west are scary. The orange skies in and around San Francisco are caused by fires more than 200 miles away as smoke and flames filter out sunlight. But the orange sky isn't the only thing that can reach beyond the fires – as is smoke and ashes as they fly through the air. These can irritate anyone, especially children, because their smaller lungs make them breathe in and out more often. Others who are at risk of being affected by smoke include those with lung or heart disease.

Smoke irritation isn't the only problem. The pollution it creates can also affect the immune system and cause inflammation in the body. "What we know about forest fire smoke and particulate pollution is that exposure increases the risk of viral infections of the respiratory tract," pulmonologist Cheryl Pirozzi said in the University of Utah press release. The most common infections are pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

Forest fires and COVID-19

Of course, we cannot forget the pandemic since 2020. The double blow of the fires and COVID-19 could cause even more breathing problems. We already know that people who live in areas with higher levels of air pollution are more likely to die when they contract COVID-19. Given the density of the particles from the forest fires, it is not surprising that experts are concerned about the impact of the fires on people infected with the coronavirus.

People who develop a cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing may attribute the discomfort to the smoke, but these are also the early symptoms of COVID-19. Therefore, they can delay testing or treatment if time is critical. And there is the downside. People who have COVID-19 or are recovering from the infection may have worse symptoms and get worse faster when they are within range of the devastating smoke. "People with more severe COVID-19 infection could have significant impairment of lung function and persistent lung abnormalities," said Dr. Pirozzi.

Protect yourself

So what should you do if you live near a burning area but are not in an evacuation zone? The American Lung Association and the Environmental Protection Agency offer the following tips:

  • If you have any lung disease, consult your doctor for recommendations that are specific to you.
  • Keep all of your medication and your peak flow meter, if you have one, close at hand.
  • Cloth masks cannot filter out the smoke. So if you have to wear a mask it should be an N95 respirator. However, these must be suitable for everyone and are difficult to come by during the pandemic. Talk to your doctor if you feel you need masks.
  • If you are using an oxygen concentrator, make sure the batteries are charged and that you have an alternative power source in the event you lose power.
  • As often as possible, stay indoors while the windows are closed.
  • Avoid exercising outside, even if the air seems cleaner than it was before.
  • If you have an air conditioner that circulates clean air, use it.
  • When you need to get out of your car, keep the windows closed and use the recirculation setting to move the air inside the car rather than pulling it in from the outside.
  • Tuck wet towels to the bottom of the outside doors and windows if they don't fit well.

This updated fire and smoke map tells you more about where the various forest fires are and what the air quality is like in your neighborhood on this website: AirNow.

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