Protect yourself from wildfire smoke during COVID-19


By Claire Ninde
San Juan Basin Public Health

As southwest Colorado enters wildfire season while still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) advises the public to take measures to protect themselves from both the novel virus and wildfire smoke. 

Protecting oneself is especially critical for those who are susceptible to or who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, those with compromised immune systems and those with health conditions that make them additionally susceptible to smoke. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, exposure to wildfire pollutants can irritate lungs, cause inflammation, alter immune function and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, including COVID-19. 

The most important precaution for people to take when wildfire smoke becomes heavy in an area is to stay home and indoors as much as possible. If this is not possible, people should wear a face covering, but most face coverings will provide only partial protection against wildfire pollutants. 

 SJBPH recommends staying indoors, reducing activity and using HEPA air cleaners indoors to reduce overall smoke exposure. Another option that should be considered for sensitive individuals is temporary relocation out of the smoky area, if possible.

Cloth face coverings that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 offer little protection against harmful air pollutants in wildfire smoke because these coverings do not capture most small particles in smoke. Masks with better filtering such as N95s provide the best protection against wildfire smoke particulates, but generally do not remove wildfire smoke gasses. Because of the presence of smoke gasses and because N95s and other medical-grade masks are used by frontline health care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, the best response to wildfire smoke becoming heavy in your area is to remain indoors.

Populations known to be vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposure include: 

• Children less than 18 years; 

• Adults age 65 years or older; 

• Pregnant women; 

• People with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease, including asthma and diabetes; 

• Outdoor workers; 

• People of low socioeconomic status, including those who are homeless and with limited access to medical care. 

Populations who might also be at high risk from wildfire smoke because of COVID-19 include those who are immunocompromised or taking drugs that suppress the immune system and those with or recovering from COVID-19 — because of compromised heart and lung function due to COVID-19, they may be at increased risk of health effects from exposure to wildfire smoke. 

Respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing are common to both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19. If you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pain, you should seek prompt medical attention by calling 911 or calling ahead to the nearest emergency facility. 

For more information on coronavirus, see: