09/15/2020 15:27 EDT

COVID-19 Or Wildfire Smoke Symptoms? How To Tell The Difference

Both can lead to coughing and difficulty breathing.

As smoke from wildfire on the west coast of the United States continues to make its way across the country, many Canadians are finding it harder and harder to breath. 

Vancouver registered the worst air quality in the world over the weekend, and despite recent rain, the smoke is expected to linger until the end of the week. Meanwhile, it’s making its way across Canada, casting an ominous orange haze in Winnipeg and even registering as far east as Ontario. 

But during the COVID-19 crisis, respiratory issues caused by wildfire smoke take on a new danger. With many symptoms of smoke inhalation and the novel coronavirus crossing over, it can be difficult to determine if you’re being impacted by the smoke or actually have COVID-19. 

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A woman walks on Granville Bridge as smoke from wildfires fills the air in Vancouver, B.C. on Sept. 12, 2020. 

During her daily briefing Monday, B.C. chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry called the smoke an “unexpected challenge” in the fight against COVID-19, as the same populations are vulnerable to adverse effects from both.  

“We know that there are important considerations, particularly for people who have underlying lung disease or asthma, heart disease, and diabetes and we know that the mixture that we inhale with wildfire smoke has a number of particulates in it that cause irritation to the nose, to the throat and to the lungs,” Henry said.

Here’s what you need to know about the difference between smoke inhalation and COVID-19. 

What are the symptoms of wildfire smoke inhalation and COVID-19? 

As smokey skies bring coughing and difficulty breathing to many Canadians, Henry says there’s confusion over what is caused by the smoke and what is caused by COVID-19.

WATCH: Respiratory therapists weigh in on COVID-19 and breathing exercises. Story continues below.


“For many of us, there’s a lot of confusion about what are the symptoms caused by smokey skies and what are the symptoms caused by COVID-19,” Henry said. 

“It is challenging to know if some of these symptoms are related to COVID, the air quality, or vice versa.” 

Symptoms such as a dry cough, runny eyes and irritation can be associated with both smoke inhalation and COVID-19 and make it difficult to tell the difference between the two. 

What are the big differences?

Henry pointed to a few key COVID-19 symptoms that are not likely to be caused by wildfire smoke.

Fever, chills and aches and pains are symptoms more unique to COVID-19. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also links a loss of smell or taste and gastrointestinal symptoms to COVID-19. 

Is my cough from the smoke or COVID-19?

Henry also said a “productive” cough is more likely a sign of COVID-19 than wildfire smoke inhalation.

A productive or “wet” cough means you are coughing up substances such as mucus or sputum, rather than a dry, airy cough. 

Will my mask protect me from both smoke and COVID-19? 

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, N-95 masks were recommended as a way to prevent smoke inhalation. However, with many in short supply,diverted to health care for front-line pandemic workers, Henry said any mask will help so long as it’s fitted properly. 

“A mask can help, if it’s tight-fitting,” Henry said. 

She recommended people, particularly in areas experiencing extreme smoke such as Vancouver wear masks outdoors as well as in public indoor spaces until the skies clear. 

Don Craig/Province of British Columbia
B.C. chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provide an update on COVID-19 on Aug. 10, 2020.

“It can help as well in reducing the number of particulates that we bring into our lungs, so that is something people should be doing when they’re outside right now,” Henry said.

And people, particularly those at risk, should avoid strenuous activity outside while the smoke is here.

“Outdoor exercise should be avoided until the skies clear,” Henry said. 

What should I do if I have symptoms?

If you have symptoms that align with COVID-19, contact your public health authority for further instructions on testing and self-isolation. 

If you think your cough might just be from the smoke, officials recommend you self-monitor for other symptoms and limit activity that could expose you to smoke. 

Smoke fills the sky and blankets the skyline in Vancouver, British Columbia on Sept. 8, 2020. 

Henry also noted that many people, particularly in Alberta and B.C., have an idea of how their body reacts to wildfire smoke, and should compare this year to previous years. She said it’s important to reflect on how wildfire smoke has impacted you in previous years, and take necessary precautions. 

“If it is your usual symptoms from smoke, make sure you take the actions you need to protect yourself,” she said. 

Henry said anyone who is having difficulty breathing should call 9-1-1 if they need immediate assistance.

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