Is it smoke, or is it COVID? Symptoms similar, and smoke exposure can make one more susceptible to respiratory ailments in general, health officials advise

Grizzly Creek Fire PIO Wayne Patterson walks along the footpath near the Hanging Lake Trailhead while in the canyon on Sunday afternoon.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Raging western Colorado wildfires and the global pandemic of COVID-19 are merging to create a dual health concern, public health officials warn.

Wildfire smoke, which has been prevalent throughout the region over the past week, can irritate lungs, cause inflammation, affect a person’s immune system — and make at-risk populations more prone to lung infections, including COVID-19, Garfield County Public Health advises.

The Centers for Disease Control has even created a dedicated web page called Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19 page, which provides an explanation of the differences between symptoms of smoke exposure and COVID-19, and advises ways to protect oneself from wildfire smoke during the pandemic.

From the Centers for Disease Control

Wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that cause COVID-19. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, preparing for wildfires might be a little different this year. Know how wildfire smoke can affect you and your loved ones during the COVID-19 pandemic and what you can do to protect yourselves.

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.

• Symptoms like fever or chills, muscle or body aches, and diarrhea are not related to smoke exposure. If you have any of these symptoms, contact a healthcare provider.

• If you have severe symptoms, like difficulty breathing or chest pain, immediately call 911 or the nearest emergency facility.

Masks won’t protect you from wildfire smoke

• Masks that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 offer little protection against wildfire smoke. They do not catch small, harmful particles in smoke that can harm your health.

• Although N95 respirators do provide protection from wildfire smoke, they might be in short supply as frontline healthcare workers use them during the pandemic.

Source: Centers for Disease Control

Dr. Barry Hammaker, a surgeon and chief medical officer at Vail Health, spoke to the correlation between the dueling health risks during a Monday video press conference sponsored by Garfield and Eagle county public health to address smoke and air quality concerns in general.

“Anyone (who) is having respiratory issues of any kind should seek medical care, where they can decide if you should be COVID tested, versus a more standard treatment, such as the use of an inhaler,” Hammaker said.

Hammaker said they haven’t seen a significant number of people come into the emergency department suffering from smoke exposure, at least in the Vail Valley.

When it comes to protecting oneself from COVID-19, he said the basic rules of avoidance still apply — washing one’s hands regularly, wearing a mask in public, not touching your face, social distancing, etc.

“If somebody had significant smoke exposure — beyond what most of us are getting just being outside right now — that might make them a little bit more susceptible to any respiratory illness, because it affects the mucous membranes and affects your immune system,” Hammaker said.

With rapid testing available for COVID, he said it’s easier to sort out those who are experiencing pulmonary irritation from smoke and someone who truly has COVID-19.

“The biggest thing with the smoke is really avoidance … stay indoors as much as possible, keep your windows closed, no heavy activity outdoors, keep your exercising inside …

“And, anybody who does have baseline lung issues, especially asthma, needs to be careful with the smoke exposure,” he said.

Morgan Hill, environmental health manager for Eagle County Public Health, said the rules of avoiding smoke exposure do run a bit counter to what public health officials advise regarding COVID-19 exposure.

“With the smoke, the recommendation is to stay inside when smoke levels become heavy in your area,” she said. “We know that this is conflicting messaging for COVID, when we’ve been telling everybody to get outside, that outside is the safer environment … the more ventilation the better.”

Oh, and those facemasks that are worn to protect oneself and others from spreading the coronavirus? They don’t do much to keep the smoke out of one’s lungs. That’s because the small particulate matter in smoke, known as PM-2.5, will still get through and be inhaled, health officials advise.

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