Double trouble: Wildfires and COVID-19

Double trouble: Wildfires and COVID-19

As British Columbians continue to take steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19, environmental health experts at the BC Centre for Disease Control are urging citizens to start thinking now about how they will protect themselves during this pandemic period from the health effects of wildfire smoke.

“COVID-19 complicates things, especially for people with respiratory conditions and other chronic diseases” says Sarah Henderson, senior scientist, Environmental Health Services, BCCDC. “Air pollution such as wildfire smoke can have a negative impact on your immune system. It can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation, and alter immune function, making it more difficult to fight respiratory infections such as COVID-19.”

While the best way to protect yourself from wildfire smoke is to reduce exposure and find clean air spaces, Henderson says this could be more difficult in the weeks and months ahead under physical distancing guidelines.

“During periods of poor air quality, we usually suggest that people seek cleaner air in places such as malls, libraries or community centres,” says Henderson, but access to these spaces may be more restricted during the pandemic.

Henderson says people can take additional steps to create their own cleaner air space at home:

  • Use a portable air cleanerin one or more rooms. Portable air cleaners work best when run continuously with doors and windows closed.
  • Whenever possible, use air conditioners, heat pumps, evaporative coolers, fans, and window shades to keep your cleaner air space comfortably cool on hot days. Overheating can cause serious health problems.
  • If you have a forced air system in your home, talk to your service provider about different filters and settings that can be used to reduce indoor smoke.
  • Plan ahead for upcoming smoke events: Use the BC Asthma Prediction System, an interactive online map that forecasts concentrations of particulate matter and can tell you if there is an asthma-related health risk during wildfire smoke events.
  • Avoid activities that create more indoor and outdoor air pollution, such as frying foods, sweeping and vacuuming, and using gas-powered appliances.
  • Most face masks worn to reduce COVID-19 risk provide limited protection from wildfire smoke.

What should you do if you have symptoms when it is smoky outside?

  • Exposure to wildfire smoke and COVID-19 can both cause respiratory symptoms such as a dry cough, sore throat, or difficulty breathing.
  • Anyone experiencing severe symptoms such as difficulty breathing, or chest pain should seek prompt medical attention by calling 911 or going to the nearest Emergency Department. It is safe to do so.
  • If you are experiencing mild symptoms, use the BC COVID-19 Self-Assessment Toolto help determine whether you need further assessment or testing for COVID-19.
  • If you still have questions after using the self-assessment tool, contact your healthcare provider or call 811 for further guidance.

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