As the wildfire season rages in Utah, California and other parts of the United States, people are at increased risk for COVID-19 infection due to wildfire smoke, according to Dr. Cheryl Pirozzi, a pulmonologist at University of Utah Health.

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,” said Pirozzi.

Common respiratory infections triggered by particulate pollution include pneumonia and bronchiolitis. People with asthma and other lung diseases 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 said.

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