Are my symptoms related to COVID-19 or smoke from forest fires?

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Much of southern British Columbia was shrouded in haze for days, the air thick and chalky, with the light giving off an ominous orange tint.Smoke from the wildfires raging in Washington state and Oregon has drifted north, prompting Environment Canada to issue a special air quality statement for Metro Vancouver. A live air tracker lists Vancouver’s air quality among the worst in the world, along with Portland and Seattle.

For many residents of British Columbia, the haze creates anxiety at an already anxious time and is a reminder of the province’s worst wildfire season, when much of the province was blanketed in smoke. But poor air quality can also have very real effects on physical health, at a time when respiratory health is already a priority.

So, if you’re feeling bad, how can you tell if your symptoms are related to COVID-19 or a side effect of poor air quality?

Sarah Henderson, senior environmental health scientist at the BC Center for Disease Control, said distinguishing between the two can be “difficult” because many symptoms of COVID-19 and signs of irritation from smoke can be similar .

But there are a few telltale signs to keep in mind.

“There are certain symptoms of COVID that we really wouldn’t expect to be associated with smoke and these are things like fever, body aches, chills – these types of symptoms are unlikely to be caused by smoke. . However, there are symptoms that are very similar between the two and that is a dry cough, a sore throat, a runny nose and a headache, ”she says.

“If you’re having trouble breathing, it’s a medical emergency – whether it’s COVID or a smoke issue – and you should call 911.”

Henderson said that if you’ve experienced poor air quality before, it may be helpful to compare your symptoms to those you may have had before.

“We had these big smoke exposures before in BC, so were you sensitive to smoke at the time? If so, maybe that’s still happening, ”she said.

But when in doubt, Henderson advises using the BC COVID-19 self-assessment tool or calling 811 for advice on how to proceed.

“If you have COVID, you absolutely need to be tested,” she said.

Will my mask protect me from smoke?

The short answer is – yes, your mask will protect you from smoke, to some extent, if it is properly fitted.

“One of the silver liners from my perspective on this terrible pandemic is that we learned very quickly about the masks and the materials,” Henderson said.

“The most important thing is whether the mask fits your face well, because if you want to filter the smoke, the smoke cannot go around the mask – it has to go through the mask – so there cannot be have no space your face. ”

Henderson said the ideal fabric mask to protect against smoke is the one with tightly woven cotton and a layer of silk, but any double-layered mask will provide more protection.

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A properly fitted N-95 mask would provide the best protection, but since they are rare due to the pandemic, they are not recommended for the general public.

It is also advisable to avoid strenuous physical activity and have a portable air filter to reduce your risk, especially for people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma, heart disease, or diabetes.

Henderson said the elderly, pregnant women and children are most at risk and little is known about the effects of smoke on the lungs of infants, which are very delicate.

“The first thing to do is to know your sensitivity. If you have an illness, be aware. If you use respiratory medications, take them with you at all times. Listen to your body if your body is telling you that you are having difficulty. with the smoke, take it slow and find ways to reduce your exposure to smoke, ”she said, adding that what BC residents are going through may be benign compared to what is happening. south of the border.

“We are in a time when forest fires are getting very extreme – and who knows what next year might bring”

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