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How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke

Aug 20, 2020
By Spencer Blackman
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Wildfire season is upon us — but this time during a global pandemic. We know there may be some confusion about how to best protect yourself from wildfire smoke, while also preventing the spread of COVID-19. Because of the pandemic, fire safety and prevention may look a little different this year. With this in mind, we’ve created a comprehensive guide to caring for you and your family during wildfires amid COVID-19.

How the smoke may affect your health

Depending on the size of the fire, smoke and ash can cause particulate matter to stretch hundreds of miles away from its origin. This means wildfire smoke can be dangerous for people beyond just those in the direct path of flames. These particulates are harmful pollutants that can make anyone sick, even those who are otherwise healthy. Symptoms of wildfire smoke may include the following:

  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing normally
  • Stinging eyes
  • A scratchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • An asthma attack
  • Tiredness
  • Fast heartbeat

Protecting yourself from wildfire smoke is particularly important this year given the risk of COVID-19. According to the CDC, 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 causes COVID-19. Breathing in wildfire smoke may also exacerbate symptoms for those who already have COVID-19. Additionally, many of the same groups that are at high-risk of severe illness from COVID-19, including adults 65 and older, pregnant women, and people with preexisting medical conditions, are also more likely to get sick from breathing in wildfire smoke. Other groups at risk of harmful effects from wildfire smoke include children, outdoor workers, and those who are immunocompromised or taking drugs that suppress the immune system.

How to prepare and protect yourself

As with any natural disaster, being prepared is the first step. We recommend having non-perishable food, water, and two weeks worth of medications stocked and ready. Consider packing an emergency bag with a change of clothes, copies of important documents and IDs, pet food and supplies, charging cables, and a first aid kit in case you need to evacuate your home at a moment’s notice. With COVID-19 in mind, you should also make sure to pack face masks and sanitation supplies, like hand sanitizer, soap, and disinfection wipes. You may even set aside heirlooms, family photos, or other irreplaceable items in a separate bag or box to grab if you time and space allow.

If dangerous levels of smoke are affecting your community, avoiding or limiting exposure to the outdoors is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself. Avoid outdoor physical activity when the air quality is bad, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. Keep your windows and doors closed. If you have an air conditioner that recirculates air, this can help with the air quality in your home. Be sure your fresh-air intake is closed so you’re not pulling in smokey air. Consider purchasing an air purifier (HEPA) to create a cleaner air room in your home.

If you are actively evacuating or already evacuated

Pay attention to local guidance about evacuation orders and shelters, as instructions and shelter locations may be different than other years because of the pandemic. If you are asked to evacuate, make sure to practice social distancing and wear a face mask when checking in with neighbors, family, or friends. If you are displaced and need to stay with others outside of your quarantine bubble, practice these tips to prevent spread while living in the same household as a precaution. Emergency shelters may also be taking extra precautions because of COVID-19. For information on staying safe in a public disaster shelter in the pandemic, see the CDC website.

Use of masks

Though cloth face masks have been proven effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19, they do not filter out the small, harmful particles in wildfire smoke. If you need to go outside, and want to avoid smoke exposure, wearing a particulate respirator mask rated N95 or P100 might offer some protection as long as it doesn’t worsen any symptoms you are experiencing. These are generally available at hardware stores, though they may be in short supply as a result of the pandemic.

Keep in mind that many N95 respirators have an exhaust valve that may actually allow the spread of COVID as the wearer exhales through the valve. While these types of respirators do help with protection from smoke, they do not filter exhaled air. To ensure you are also preventing the spread of COVID, it’s recommended to wear a surgical or cloth facemask over the N95 respirator, covering the exhaust valve. Also, N95 and P100 respirators are not suitable for children.

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Spencer Blackman, One Medical Provider

Spencer practices relationship-centered primary care, blending a traditional sensibility with up-to-date clinical knowledge and a strong focus on disease prevention. He enjoys getting to know his patients well, educating and empowering them to participate in health care decisions. Spencer completed his residency training at UCSF and practiced primary care, urgent care, sports medicine and adolescent medicine throughout the Bay Area before joining One Medical Group. He is certified with the American Board of Family Medicine. Spencer is a One Medical Group provider.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.