Exposure to wildfire smoke can increase your risk of contracting COVID-19, experts say


Wildfires are raging across the Western United States, with parts of California and Oregon blanketed by thick layers of smoke. Much of California’s population has been exposed to air quality levels that are unsafe, according to community air quality monitoring website Purple Air.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Office of Emergency Services warned residents on Twitter Wednesday to “limit outdoor activities and stay inside if possible.”

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health has also declared air quality levels “unhealthy” for residents.

Smoke from wildfires can cause serious irritation to a person’s lungs, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Wildfire smoke is made up of a “complex mixture of gases and fine particles” that are created when wood and other organic materials burn, the EPA explains.

“The biggest concern with wildfire smoke is fine particles. They can penetrate deep into your lungs,” Dr. Raymond Casciari, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. Those particles can cause a slew of health issues, including burning eyes and a runny nose to chronic heart and lung issues, the EPA says.

But being exposed to wildfire smoke and poor air quality can also increase your risk of infection, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Yahoo Life. “Smoke can damage a person’s respiratory defenses and lower the threshold for infection with a variety of agents, which would include SARS-CoV-2,” he says.

Wildfire smoke specifically causes your mucosa, the tissue lining your airways, to become dry and inflamed, Casciari says. “Your mucosa becomes vulnerable and that makes it easier for SARS-CoV-2 to enter into your cells and body,” he says.

Wildfire smoke can also leave a person vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, Dr. Jonathan Parsons, a pulmonologist at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center, tells Yahoo Life. “Wildfire smoke can lead to significant irritation and inflammation of the respiratory system,” he says. “If this inflammatory environment is present at baseline, and one contracts COVID-19, the risk of complications is increased significantly.”

Casciari says that, in such situations, it’s best to say indoors as much as possible. “Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated so that your mucosa stays hydrated,” he says. He also recommends shutting your windows and doors and running your air conditioner if you have one.

If you need to venture outside, wearing an N95 mask is ideal, Casciari says. These masks, however, which filter out 95 percent of particulate matter, are in short supply due to the coronavirus pandemic and should be reserved for health care workers. A bandana “does almost nothing” when it comes to protecting your lungs from wildfire smoke and poor air quality, but a cloth face mask or surgical mask may offer some level of protection, Casciari says. “Use any kind of mask you have available,” he says.

Taking care of your mental health is important too, given that being stuck indoors during a global pandemic and widespread wildfires can be stressful. “One of the most frightening fears of people is to be closed in with no escape. This combination of world events and the fires closing in is exceptionally frightening,” clinical psychologist John Mayer, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Life.

Going outside is often a way that people decompress, but it’s not an option for those struggling with poor air quality due to the wildfires, Mayer points out. He recommends exercising indoors, if possible. (Casciari says it’s considered safe “if you have a decent air conditioning filter system.”) Trying to recreate the calming outdoor experience by watching travel videos or looking at pictures of pretty scenery may also help, Mayer says.

Jennifer Carter, a psychologist at Wexner Medical Center, recommends rethinking your news sources. “If you find that your anxiety increases after taking in news from particular sources, limit your exposure to those sources,” she tells Yahoo Life. She also says it’s important to find ways to connect with others. “We are social beings, and it’s important to connect socially even when we cannot connect physically,” Carter says. “Reach out to others and express your feelings. Research indicates that simply labeling a feeling — ‘I feel stressed’— can decrease its intensity by activating the logical brain.”

And while it can be difficult to think of much else in this kind of situation, Mayer says it helps to remember that the current intense status quo won’t last forever.

Ultimately, Casciari says the most important thing is for people on the West Coast to be protective of their health overall. “Stay inside, if you can,” he says.

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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