Smoke or COVID-19? B.C. physician explains the different symptoms
VANCOUVER -- Heavy smoke from wildfires south of the border has blanketed Metro Vancouver for days, leaving many people feeling unwell and wondering if their symptoms are related to the smoky air or the COVID-19 pandemic.
CTV Morning Live spoke with family physician Dr. Melissa Lem on Tuesday to hear more about the differences between COVID-19 and smoke-related symptoms.
The following is part of a five-minute interview and has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview above.
Jason Pires: What effect does wildfire smoke have on our health?
Dr. Melissa Lem: Over the weekend Vancouver had the worst air quality of any major city in the world because of blowing smoke from wildfires in the U.S.
Exposure to these high levels of fine particulate matter … causes three main physical health effects. It directly irritates your airway, causing symptoms like cough and shortness of breath. It increases inflammation, raising the risk of conditions like heart attack and stroke. And it suppresses your immune function.
Wildfire smoke can also affect our mental health. People who are exposed to wildfires have higher rates of PTSD, anxiety and depression. For a lot of people in B.C., it's brought back memories of the record-breaking wildfires of 2017 to 2018 that had many of us asking if this was the new normal.
Combining these overlapping crises of climate change induced wildfire smoke with the effects of COVID-19 means that, in my own practice, I'm seeing a lot more patients with both respiratory and mental health concerns.
Keri Adams: What advice do you have to manage the smoke?
Lem: In terms of staying healthy, we have to stay indoors a lot right now … so in general you want to try to breathe air that's as clean and as cool as possible, which means staying inside with your doors and windows shut, with fans and air conditioning on recirculate mode to keep smoke out.
You also want to avoid activities that worsen indoor air quality, like vacuuming, burning candles or using a gas stove or fireplace. You also want to be prepared for wildfire and smoke season in the future. So buy a portable air cleaner, and make sure you have at least a week's worth of medications and home essentials on-hand.
Pires: Do you advise kids to be playing outdoors right now?
Lem: Kids are one of the groups most affected by the smoke, like older adults over 65 and people with chronic health conditions. In general, if you can see smoke or smell it, it means it's probably not very safe to be outside playing sports. So I would generally recommend to not participate in organized outdoor sports when it's smoky like this.
Adams: How do we tell if our respiratory symptoms are from smoke or COVID-19?
Lem: That's a tricky one. Both COVID-19 and smoke can cause those viral and flu-like symptoms like cough, runny nose, sore throat and headache. But if it reminds you of symptoms you've had in previous fire seasons and you haven't been in contact with a COVID-19 case, then they're more likely due to smoke.
But you want to keep in mind though that symptoms not typically caused by smoke typically include fever, chills, muscle aches and diarrhea. So if you do develop any of these symptoms, you should consider getting a COVID-19 test.
Pires: Can wildfire smoke increase the risk of getting sick from COVID-19?
Lem: We don't have a lot of data on this yet, but some early studies from Europe and the U.S. suggest that air pollution can increase the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. Possibly because it increases the risk of lung disease and inflammation, even in young and healthy people, which could amplify those inflammatory effects that we already see in COVID-19.
Recent research from UBC showed that ambulance calls for heart and lung disease shoot up after only one hour of smoke exposure. If these patients are filling our (emergency rooms) and (intensive care units), this competes with the resources we need to manage COVID-19 patients, which can worsen overall outcomes.
Watch the full five-minute interview in the video player above.