COVID-19 and Wildfire Smoke

New information continues to emerge regarding the health impacts associated with COVID-19 and wildfire smoke. Research shows that exposure to air pollutants like wildfire smoke can irritate the lungs, cause inflammation and alter immune function, which can increase susceptibility to respiratory infections, likely including COVID-19. This is of concern because current COVID-19 restrictions also limit standard public health recommendations to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke. This page will be updated as more information becomes available.


Updated September 14, 2020

Summer and fall air quality in Spokane can often be impacted by regional wildfires. This results in air pollution that is sometimes unhealthy for all. During times of poor air quality, Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) and Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency (Spokane Clean Air) urge residents to understand the health risks associated with wildfire smoke and take precautions to protect their health.


Where can I get the most up-to-date air quality data for Spokane County?

Current air quality information is provided by Spokane Regional Clean Air Agency and updated every hour.

Statewide air quality information is available at Washington Smoke Blog.


What is wildfire smoke and can it make me sick?

Wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles (called PM2.5) from burning vegetation, building materials and other materials. Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick, even someone who is healthy, if there is enough smoke in the air. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including the following:

Symptoms

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  

If you have questions about the health effects of wildfire smoke, call the Washington Poison Center (WPC) at 800.222.1222.


Are some people more sensitive to smoke than others?

While inhaling smoke isn't good for anyone, some people are especially sensitive and more likely to experience health problems related to wildfire smoke including the following:

  • Older adults over age 65. This is because they are more likely to have unrecognized heart or lung diseases.
  • Infants and children under 18. Their lungs and airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.
  • Pregnant women. Both the mother and fetus are at increased risk of health effects.
  • People who smoke because they are more likely to already have lower lung function and lung diseases.

People with existing health conditions such as the following are also more likely to experience health effects:

  • Lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including bronchitis and emphysema.
  • Respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, colds or flu.
  • Existing heart or circulatory problems, such as dysrhythmias, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease and angina.
  • Prior history of heart attack or stroke.
  • Diabetes because they are more likely to have an undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.

How are symptoms from wildfire smoke exposure different from symptoms of COVID-19?

Respiratory symptoms such as dry cough, sore throat and difficulty breathing are common symptoms of both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19. See how the symptoms compare below. If you are experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing or chest pain, get medical attention as soon as possible by calling 911 or calling ahead to the nearest emergency medical facility. If you have a fever, cough or shortness of breath, proceed as if you may have COVID-19, protect others by staying home and call your healthcare provider to discuss COVID-19 testing and other possible reasons for your illness.

Wildfire Smoke*
COVID-19**

Cough

Trouble breathing

Wheezing

Asthma attacks

Stinging eyes

Scratchy throat

Runny nose

Irritated sinuses

Headache

Tiredness

Chest pain

Fast heartbeat

Exacerbation of lung, heart and circulatory conditions***

Cough

Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

Fever

Chills

Muscle Pain

Sore throat

Congestion or runny nose****

Headache

Fatigue****

New loss of taste or smell

Less common: nausea, vomiting, diarrhea

* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke
** Washington State Dept. of Health Novel Coronavirus Frequently Asked Questions
*** Washington State Dept. of Health Smoke From Fires
**** Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Symptoms of Coronavirus


How can I limit my exposure to wildfire smoke?

Here are some steps you can take to limit exposure to wildfire smoke.

  • When a wildfire occurs in your area, watch for local news or health warnings about smoke and air quality. Pay attention to local air quality reports and public health messages and take extra safety measures such as avoiding time outdoors, including limiting outdoor physical activity. See resources on this page.
  • If it is recommended you stay indoors, keep your indoor air as clean as possible by reducing smoke intake into your home. Close windows and doors unless it is very hot outside. Run an air conditioner if you have one but keep the fresh-air intake closed (set to recirculate) and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Turn off fans that vent outside—like your bathroom fan. These pull in outside air through cracks around windows and doors.
  • Reduce indoor pollution as much as possible when smoke levels are high. Limit use of anything that burns, such as candles and fireplaces. Do not smoke tobacco or other products. Limit activities such as vacuuming, dusting and sweeping, that stir up particulates in your home. Avoid using fragranced air fresheners, cleaners or essential oils, as they may trigger asthma or allergies. Reduce cooking, which creates heat and fine particles.
  • Improve your indoor air filtration to prevent smoke particles from getting into your home. You can do this by increasing heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) filtration by using a portable air clear with a HEPA filter or by using a DIY box fan filter. It’s important to remember that while these filtration methods can help reduce the viral load of SARS CoV-2 in the air, none of these methods provide protection from COVID-19. Follow best practices including wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing and good hand hygiene. See the next section for more information about these methods.
  • Follow your healthcare provider’s advice about medications and respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Call your provider if symptoms worsen.

How can I filter smoke out of my indoor air?

Increase HVAC Filtration

You can improve the air quality in your home by reducing the fine particles (PM2.5) coming into your home during smoke events. Your home’s HVAC system is the best way to reduce fine particles from wildfire smoke throughout your home, rather than in a single room. Increase the filtration in your home HVAC system to a MERV rating 13 filter with the deepest pleat your system can accommodate to reduce fine particles. Close the air intake to keep wildfire smoke out. Make sure to consult your HVAC manual or consult with an HVAC professional before making improvements. Change the filter when dirty or indicated by manufacturer’s instructions.

Use a Portable Air Cleaner With a HEPA Filter

A portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter can reduce fine particles (PM2.5) from wildfire smoke in a single room. Select one that is rated for the size of room where you plan to use it. The rating is based on the square footage of the room and the Clean Air Delivery Rate (CADR). Consider the noise rating as well, as some can be quite loud. Choosing one rated for a larger size room and then running it at a lower setting can reduce the noise.

Do not use ozone generators, personal air purifiers, or electrostatic precipitators and ionizers that produce ozone, which is a respiratory irritant. Check that it has been certified to avoid ozone exposures through the California Certified Air Cleaning Devices portal. Place it in a room where you spend time, with the windows and doors closed. Change the filter when dirty or indicated by manufacturer’s instructions.

Use a DIY Box Fan Filter

DIY-ing a box fan filter can be a less expensive option to reduce fine particles (PM2.5) from wildfire smoke in a single room. When building your own box fan filter it is important to understand their limitations and the potential risks.

Select a standard box fan and a filter with a MERV 13 rating of the same dimensions. There are different designs to consider, such as those where the filter is attached by bungee cord, the filter is screwed on brackets, and two filters are attached to create a triangle shape. Place the constructed DIY box fan filter in a room, ideally a small room where you spend time, with the windows and doors closed. Keep it away from a window or wall so that the front or back are not blocked. Do not run unattended and monitor for overheating to reduce the risk of fire. Change the filter when dirty.

Learn how to make a DIY filter

Washington State Dept. of Ecology Make Your Own Clean Air Fan (video) English Spanish

Puget Sound Clean Air Agency DIY Air Filter (video)

Colville Tribes Box Fan Filter DIY Users Guide (video)


Can a face mask protect me from smoke?

SRHD does not typically recommend face masks as the best option for members of the general public to reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke. It is better to stay indoors and keep indoor air clean.  

During previous fire seasons, members of the general public who need to use a face mask for a limited period of time outside during a smoke event have been directed to use an N95 or other NIOSH respirator rated for fine particulates while also taking several necessary steps to ensure it is worn correctly to achieve a proper fit and seal. N95 respirators are not an option for everyone, as they are not recommended for children, not as effective with facial hair, and those with pre-existing conditions should first consult with a healthcare provider.  

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, N95 and other NIOSH-approved respirators are in short supply due to COVID-19 and they need to be reserved for those required to wear them for work.


Will a cloth face covering protect me from smoke?

Cloth face coverings generally do not provide much protection from breathing in wildfire smoke. However, it is important to continue to wear cloth face coverings to slow the spread of SARS-Cov-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) and reduce the risk of COVID-19. Learn more about face coverings.


Is it safe for me to exercise when it’s smoky outside?

Getting regular exercise is very important for your health. However, when exercising, your air intake increases. If you exercise when it's smoky out, you will inhale more polluted air. If you are sensitive to smoke, consider limiting your activities when the air quality is in the Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups category. Please note that people with asthma or lung and heart conditions may be more sensitive to poor air quality, so it may be best to reduce indoor and outdoor activities when air quality is in the Moderate category.


Is it safe for children or teens to participate in outdoor recreation when air quality is poor?

Populations at increased risk for severe respiratory problems from wildfire smoke include children and adolescents, especially when active. Children under the age of six are most at risk for experiencing severe respiratory problems from wildfire smoke. When air quality conditions deteriorate into "unhealthy" ranges, the best thing to do is limit outdoor exposure.

Guidance for Air Pollution and School Activities / Outdoor Sport Events


The building I work in smells smoky. What can or should I do?

If there are concerns about indoor air quality in the workplace, check with your employer about keeping the air inside as clean as possible. The windows and doors should be kept closed. The building air conditioner should be used with the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside

Visit L&I’s website to learn more.


I work outside all or most of the day. When it’s really smoky out, what can I do to stay safe?

When it’s smoky out and outdoor air quality is considered unhealthy or hazardous, it’s important to minimize health risks related to exposure to smoky conditions. Consider the following best practices from the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I):

  • Relocate work to less smoky areas.
  • Reschedule work until the air quality improves.
  • Reduce the level or duration of work that is physically demanding.
  • Provide enclosed structures or rooms that supply filtered air.
  • Provide vehicles equipped with air conditioning; in poor air quality employees should operate the air conditioning in "recirculate" mode and keep vents and windows closed.

Visit L&I’s website to learn more.


I’m worried about air quality conditions at work. Can I wear a mask?

You may ask to voluntarily wear a non-NIOSH approved dust mask at work, such as a KN95 or hobby mask, when smoke from wildfires enters the work environment. Please keep in mind that using NIOSH-approved N95s is temporarily discouraged due to the current shortage and need to reserve existing limited supplies for workers exposed to coronavirus in high-risk occupations like healthcare.

Your employer may also permit you to voluntarily use of other types of NIOSH-approved respirators, such as half-facepiece elastomeric respirators with HEPA cartridges, but any such use would need to comply with medical evaluations and other applicable requirements in the Respirators rule, Chapter 296-842 WAC.

Visit L&I’s website to learn more.


Resources:

Local

Spokane Regional Health District Guidance for Air Pollution and School Activities/Outdoor Sport Events
Spokane Regional Clean Air Is the Air Safe Infographic

State

Washington State Department of Health Smoke from Wildfires Toolkit
Washington State Department of Health Smoke from Fires
Washington State Department of Health Wildfires
Washington State Department of Health Recommendations for Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19 During the 2020 Wildfire Season
Washington State Department of Labor & Industries Wildfire Smoke and Washington Workers
Washington State Department of Labor & Industries Protecting workers from wildfire smoke exposure: best practices

National

United States Department of Agriculture Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19 FAQ
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Wildfires
Ready.gov Wildfires
United States Environmental Protection Agency Smoke-Ready Toolbox for Wildfires
United States Environmental Protection Agency Indoor Air and Coronavirus (COVID-19)