The photos of wildfires in the West are eery. Orange skies in San Francisco and surrounding areas are caused by fires more than 200 miles away as smoke and flames filter out the sunlight. But orange skies aren’t the only thing that can reach beyond the fires – so can smoke and ash as they travel through the air. These can be irritating anyone, children in particular because they breathe in and out more often due to their smaller lungs. Others at risk for being affected by the smoke are those with lung or heart disease.

Irritation from smoke isn’t the only concern. The pollution it causes can also affect the immune system and cause inflammation in the body. “What we know about wildfire smoke and particulate pollution is that exposure increases the risk for respiratory viral infections,” pulmonologist Cheryl Pirozzi, MD, said in University of Utah press release. The most common infections are pneumonia and bronchiolitis.

Wildfires and COVID-19

Of course, since it’s 2020, we can’t forget the pandemic. The one-two punch of the fires and COVID-19 could cause even more respiratory problems. We already know that people who live in areas with higher levels of air pollution are more likely to die if they contract COVID-19. Given the density of the particles from the wildfires, it’s not surprising that experts are concerned about impact the fires will have on people who have contracted the coronavirus.

People who develop a cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing may chalk the discomfort down to the smoke, but these are also the early symptoms of COVID-19. Therefore, they may delay testing or getting treatment, when time is of the essence. And there is the flip side. People who do have COVID-19 or who are recovering from the infection may have worse symptoms and deteriorate more quickly if they’re in range of the wildfire smoke. “People who’ve had more severe COVID-19 infection could have significant impairment in lung function and persistent lung abnormalities,” Dr. Pirozzi explained.

Protect Yourself

So what should you do if you live near an area that is burning, but you’re not in an evacuation zone? The American Lung Association and the Environmental Protection Agency offer these tips:

  • If you have a lung disease, check with your doctor for recommendations specific to you.
  • Keep all your medications close at hand, as well as your peak flow meter if you have one.
  • Cloth masks cannot filter out the smoke so if you must wear a mask, it should be an N95 respirator mask. However, these must be fit to each person and they are hard to get during the pandemic. Speak with your doctor if you feel you need some masks.
  • If you use an oxygen concentrator, be sure battery packs are charged and you have an alternative power source if you lose electricity.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible, with the windows closed.
  • Avoid exercising outside even if the air seems cleaner than it was previously.
  • If you have air conditioning that can circulate clean air, use it.
  • If you must go out in your car, keep the windows closed and use the recirculate setting to move air inside the car rather than pulling it from outside.
  • Tuck wet towels along the bottom of outside doors and around windows if they don’t fit well.

You can learn more about where the various wildfires are with this up-to-date Fire and Smoke Map and what the air quality in your neighborhood is like on this site: AirNow.