Wildfires, COVID-19 and Your Health

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
August 23, 2020
3 min read

Wildfires are unfortunately becoming an annual occurrence with devastating impacts on homes, businesses, wildlife, habitats, and people’s health. Wildfires release billions of particles into the air which can travel miles and have serious health consequences. The size of these particles can be small on the order of microns in size which means they can travel into the deepest parts of the lung through small conducting airways known as bronchioles and into the air sacks called alveoli where gas exchange and breathing occurs. These particles trigger an inflammatory response in the lungs which can lead to significant symptoms and impact people with and without preexisting medical conditions.

While we do not yet know the long-term health effects of wildfires, the short-term consequences can be troublesome and include a scratchy throat, cough, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose, congestion, chest discomfort, eye irritation/redness, and even shortness of breath. In those patients who have underlying lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, or allergies, the symptoms can be much more severe due to the fact that those conditions cause at baseline inflammation and the body is therefore primed when it encounters another inflammatory insult (such as the particles in a wildfire) to produce an exaggerated response which at times can be severe and even deadly. In addition, patients who vape or smoke tobacco may also experience exacerbated symptoms when they encounter wildfire smoke.

In the face of COVID-19, we do not have data yet to know what consequences wildfires may have on the pandemic and a person’s health. One difficulty is that many of the inflammatory symptoms that wildfires can cause are similar in nature to symptoms from COVID-19 and could be difficult to distinguish without testing. In addition, we know that inflammation from smoke can sometimes impact the body’s own immune defenses and it is unclear at this time how this could impact one’s chances of becoming infected with COVID-19 should they become exposed. Lastly, fires can oftentimes lead to evacuations and the need to shelter with others which poses a transmission concern during a period of time when isolation is warranted.

The good news is there are steps you can take to protect your body from wildfires and COVID-19:

  • Keep track of air quality ratings in your area on sites like purpleair.com
  • Minimize exposure outdoors and try to exercise indoors
  • Keep your windows closed as much as possible and if you have an air conditioner or air purifier we recommend using it
  • If you do go outside, remove clothes and shower when you return to reduce the amount of particles that are tracked into your home
  • Keep indoor air clean; While it can be tempting to light candles or burn a fire during outages, this can lead to increased air pollution inside your home and make the inflammation worse.
  • If you do notice a worsening of your underlying medical conditions or if you are having trouble breathing seek medical attention. Our providers are ready to help at your local Carbon Health clinic or via Carbon Health’s Virtual Urgent Care.
  • Protect your lungs! Paper, dust masks, and bandanas are often too porous to provide protection. They are also not as effective for protecting you against COVID-19. If possible, choose a respirator that has been approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, either with a N95 or P100 rating.
  • If you have to shelter with others during the pandemic, we recommend maintaining a distance from others if possible (ideally 6 feet or greater), wear a mask, do not touch your face, mouth, and eyes, clean common surfaces with household cleaners, and regularly wash your hands with soap and warm water for 30 seconds or use hand sanitizer.

We understand that this period of wildfires and COVID-19 can seem very overwhelming, stressful, and frankly unfair but we at Carbon Health are here to help you and your family get through this difficult time.

Liked what you read? Learn more by downloading the Carbon Health app or visiting carbonhealth.com.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.


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