How to stay safe from wildfire smoke during the coronavirus pandemic

June 23, 2020
smoke from a wildfire cover the sky and turns the sun orange, adding safety risks during coronavirus pandemic
Smoke from wildfires lowers air quality. CDC has released information on wildfire smoke safety during the coronavirus pandemic. Photo courtesy of Joel Blocker Photography.

Smoke from wildfires in Colorado has created air quality concerns across the state, and that makes people more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidance for people living in areas affected by wildfires during the pandemic.

According to the CDC:

  • The best way to protect against the potentially harmful effects of wildfire smoke is to reduce your exposure to wildfire smoke, for example, by seeking cleaner air shelters and cleaner air spaces.
  • Limit your outdoor exercise when it is smoky outside or choose lower-intensity activities to reduce your smoke exposure.

Below are recommendations from the CDC for staying healthy through the fire season.

Know the difference between symptoms from smoke exposure and COVID-19.

  • Some symptoms, like dry cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing can be caused by both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19.
  • Learn about symptoms of COVID-19. Symptoms like fever or chills, muscle or body aches, and diarrhea are not related to smoke exposure. If you have any of these symptoms, the CDC COVID-19 Self-Checker can help you determine whether you need further assessment or testing for COVID-19. If you have questions after using the CDC COVID-19 Self-Checker,  contact a healthcare provider.
  • If you have severe symptoms, like difficulty breathing or chest pain, immediately call 911 or the nearest emergency facility.

What’s in smoke and how is it harmful?

Wildfire smoke contains a mix of gases and tiny particles that come from the burning trees, plant material and other things that are fueling the fire.

According to the CDC, wildfire smoke in the air can pose a risk for anyone. Those most at risk include the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic respiratory and heart conditions. Children are also at a higher risk as they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, and wildfire smoke can irritate their still-developing lungs.

Wildfire smoke in the air can sting your eyes and irritate your throat and lungs, resulting in coughing, wheezing, or even an asthma attack or bronchitis. It can cause unexpected symptoms such as chest pain, a rapid heartbeat, headaches, a runny nose and fatigue.

How can I stay safe when there is smoke in the air?

For wildfire smoke in the air, the CDC recommends the following:

Limit exposure to smoke. That might mean staying indoors and keeping your indoor air as clean as possible by closing doors and windows, and turning off fresh-air intakes. An indoor air filter that removes fine particles can also help protect people most at risk.

Pay attention to public health messages. If you’re told to stay indoors, do so and follow the steps above to keep your indoor air clean. If it’s too hot to keep doors and windows closed and you don’t have an air conditioner, you should seek shelter elsewhere. And if you are told to evacuate, leave as quickly as possible.

Consider reducing physical activity. During exercise, people can breathe up to 10 or 20 times more air than when resting. That higher breathing rate brings more smoke deep into the lungs. And if you’re breathing through your mouth, you’re bypassing the natural air filter of your nose, further increasing your exposure to the smoke.

Don’t add to your indoor pollution. Burning candles or smoking can add to pollution. Keep your vacuum cleaner in the closet, as vacuuming stirs up particles already in the home.

If you have asthma or lung disease, talk with your doctor about how best to navigate wildfire season. And if you start to experience symptoms of smoke exposure, don’t hesitate to visit a UCHealth Urgent Care or schedule a Virtual Visit with a provider to receive care from the comfort of your home.

About the author

Erin Emery is editor of UCHealth Today, a hub for medical news, inspiring patient stories and tips for healthy living. Erin spent years as a reporter for The Denver Post, Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Springs Sun. She was part of a team of Denver Post reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for breaking news reporting.

Erin joined UCHealth in 2008, and she is awed by the strength of patients and their stories.