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Wildfires are becoming more common and severe due to climate change and warmer and drier conditions in the West. As wildfire season rages in Utah, California, and other parts of the United States, people are also at increased risk for COVID-19 infection due to wildfire smoke.

Smoke from wildfires can potentially irritate the lungs and affect the immune system. The complex mixture that makes up wildfire smoke includes particulate pollution, which can cause inflammation in the body. “What we know about wildfire smoke and particulate pollution is that exposure increases the risk for respiratory viral infections,” says Cheryl Pirozzi, MD, a pulmonologist at University of Utah Health.

Common respiratory infections triggered by particulate pollution include pneumonia and bronchiolitis. People with asthma and other lung disease are more vulnerable to health effects from particulate pollution. Research has shown that air pollution can also increase risk for COVID-19 infection.

The virus that causes COVID-19 can cause a wide range of symptoms, including several respiratory symptoms such as cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing. These symptoms of COVID-19 may overlap with respiratory symptoms caused by air pollution or wildfire smoke exposure. People who are susceptible to or affected by COVID-19 may have health conditions that make them vulnerable to wildfire smoke exposure and potentially lead to more severe disease. “People who’ve had more severe COVID-19 infection could have significant impairment in lung function and persistent lung abnormalities,” Pirozzi says.

There are a lot of unknowns about the long-term consequences of COVID-19, but health care professionals at U of U Health have recognized prolonged respiratory symptoms following infection. “There’s a large range of severity of infection due to COVID-19,” Pirozzi says. “Many people are debilitated from critical illness and still need supplemental oxygen or rehabilitation after their hospitalization.”

The best way to protect yourself against the harmful effects of wildfire smoke is to reduce exposure and limit outdoor exercise during times of poor air quality or when smoke is present. The CDC provides recommendations to protect yourself from wildfire smoke during the COVID-19 pandemic and ways to create a cleaner air space at home.