Cough, sore throat, and trouble breathing: COVID-19 or exposure to wildfire smoke?

Coronavirus Updates

Courtesy: Michael Paskett

(ABC4) – Dry cough, sore throat, trouble breathing: these are all symptoms of COVID-19. But those exposed to too much wildfire smoke can experience the same thing.

Any Utahn who has checked the weather forecast or looked out the window lately, knows that smoke is no stranger to the state’s atmosphere. The Beehive State has been catching secondhand smoke from California’s wildfires, and it was so bad in some parts of Utah that people called 911 in droves to report or inquire about nearby fires.

On the other hand, Utah is experiencing a recent surge in COVID-19 cases as the Delta variant takes hold, overwhelming ICUs and leaving the majority of the state with a very high case incidence rate. And the two problems may be linked: a recent study proposes that wildfire smoke exposure is related to increased risk of catching COVID-19.

“Both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke exposures adversely impact the respiratory and immune systems, and early evidence suggests experiencing both can lead to worse symptoms and health outcomes,” Dr. Alejandra Maldonado, epidemiology manager at the Utah Department of Health, says.

“People who currently have or who are recovering from COVID-19 are at increased risk of health effects from exposure to wildfire smoke due to compromised heart and/or lung function related to COVID-19. Additionally, past research shows wildfire smoke can make people more susceptible to respiratory infections like pneumonia and bronchitis, and early evidence suggests this likely includes COVID-19,” she adds.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention explains how to tell if you have COVID-19 or have been breathing in smoke, as both can cause lung irritation, inflammation, and affect your immune system.

Though COVID-19 can certainly cause respiratory problems, there are other symptoms to be on the lookout for as well. Fever, chills, body or muscle aches, and diarrhea are all COVID-19 symptoms that may or may not accompany sore throat or a dry cough and have nothing to do with exposure to smoke.

Those who are experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms, should use the CDC’s COVID-19 Self-Checker to decide whether or not to get tested.

COVID-19 symptoms include:

  • fever or chills
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • muscle, body aches
  • headache
  • loss of taste or smell
  • sore throat
  • diarrhea
  • runny nose
  • vomiting, nausea

According to the CDC, people who are experiencing severe symptoms like trouble breathing, consistent pain or pressure in the chest, confusion, inability to wake up or stay awake, or blue-colored skin should seek immediate medical attention.

The CDC offers some advice on how to avoid breathing in smoke.

How to stay safe from wildfire smoke

  • Avoid exercising outdoors as much as possible when it’s smoky. Replace high intensity activities with low intensity to avoid breathing in smoke.
  • Consider using a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter in your home or create a DIY box fan filter. Don’t leave a box fan filter unattended.
  • Some activities, such as frying foods, sweeping, vacuuming, and using gas-powered appliances, create more air pollution both indoors and outdoors. These activities should be avoided to protect your home.
  • Know if you or a family members are at risk from wildfire smoke. Children under 18 years old, adults over 65 years old, pregnant women, and people with chronic health conditions are some at-risk groups.
  • Stay informed about the air quality in your area.

Salt Lake County Health suggested using a N95 mask outdoors when the air quality is poor, limit use of swamp coolers, and keep windows and doors closed to improve indoor air quality.

Visit air.utah.gov to keep track of Utah’s air quality by county.

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