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Wildfire smoke wreaks havoc on respiratory and immune systems

Image of Picture of a military tent; an orange, smoky hue surrounds the tent and soldiers. Smoke from wildfires blocks out the sun Aug. 19, 2020, at Fort Hunter Liggett. Soldiers from the California Army National Guard's 79th Infantry Brigade Combat Team dealt with a heat wave and heavy smoke from nearby wildfires during a warfighter exercise at the fort. (Photo by Maj. Jason Sweeney, Army National Guard.)

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Across much of the Western United States, residents continue to endure the current wildfire season, which has firefighters battling nearly 100 large active wildfires that have already burned nearly 5 million acres.

And where there’s fire, there’s smoke that blanketed several western cities this week. This smoke has resulted in reduced air quality and contributed to a host of associated health risks that mirror COVID-19 symptoms.

For Pacific Northwest residents, the smoke from these fires and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have led to an increased the number of respiratory and cardiovascular ailments.

At Naval Hospital Bremerton, staff continue efforts to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Staff and beneficiaries there remain aware that prevailing winds have pushed wildfire smoke over more densely populated areas, which can cause coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing, and aggravate existing conditions.

“Staff and patients should do their best to avoid prolonged exposure to the smoke due to the fact that it can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs,” said Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Omar Garcia-Argueta, Internal Medicine & Specialty Clinics.

State and country health advisory alerts on diminished air quality have been posted and shared to alert local populations, with NHB also taking a lead to assess those in need.

“The smoke can exacerbate any existing underlying condition,” said Navy Cmdr. Robert Uniszkiewicz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton COVID-19 lead and public health emergency officer, acknowledging that both COVID-19 and wildfire smoke can damage a person’s respiratory and immune systems.

The Washington State Emergency Management Division indicate those sensitive to wildfire smoke exposure include people with heart and lung disease, existing respiratory infections, diabetes, stroke survivors, infants, children, pregnant women, and people over 65 years of age.

“Patients and staff who will be impacted the most are those who have been diagnosed with cardio-respiratory diseases such as asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), pulmonary fibrosis, or heart disease,” explained Garcia-Argueta. “Asthma and COPD patients in particular should ensure that they are taking their maintenance medications as prescribed by their providers. Smoke may also impact pregnant women, the elderly population, and children. These patients and staff members should consult with their health care providers regarding specific precautions.”

“We realize that not everything is COVID-19 related, such as someone dealing with allergies, hay fever, and the flu. But there are definitely those who are more vulnerable than others,” Uniszkiewicz added.

One effective strategy being used at NHB to care for patients during the pandemic is the Drive-Through Screening and Triage process, which follows Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria.

Everyone— staff, patient, or visitor —who arrives on base goes through the same procedure. This is a best practice across the Military Health System and in the civilian network. The drive-thru is a safe and efficient way to effectively assess patients on their current health and wellness.

The COVID-19 screening process determines if a person in the previous 24 hours has had such symptoms as fever, cough (not allergy related), sore throat, shortness of breath/difficulty breathing, and/or loss of smell or taste.

Wildfire smoke is capable of producing harmful health effects from eye, nose, and throat irritation or headaches to more severe conditions like shortness of breath, dry cough, throat soreness, chest tightness, asthma attacks, and worsening existing chronic conditions.

Experts at NHB encourage anyone experiencing these symptoms to seek medical attention. They should also continue to follow CDC guidelines for stopping the spread of COVID-19, such as staying at least 6 feet from others; washing hands often, and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces at home; avoiding touch the eyes, nose, or mouth; and covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or the crook of an elbow.

Garcia-Argueta attests that the best recourse for avoiding wildfire smoke is to stay indoors.

“In order to prevent prolonged exposure to the wildfire smoke, one should plan to stay indoors and have both their windows and doors closed. Patients and staff members should also avoid engaging in strenuous physical activity outside and refrain from smoking,” Garcia-Argueta said.

“Our recommendation is to still wear cloth face coverings. There are going to be those who think the smoke is causing them to have trouble breathing with the air quality like it is, but they’re more susceptible to particles in the air due to being exposed to wildfire smoke,” explained Uniszkiewicz.

Garcia-Argueta also advocates basic steps for everyone to follow to protect their lungs, such as: stay indoors as much as possible; reduce strenuous activity; reduce other sources of indoor air pollution like vacuuming and frying meat; use HVAC systems to filter the air; when traveling in a vehicle, keep the windows closed, run the air conditioner and set air to ‘recirculate’ to reduce smoke.

Hot, dry conditions remain in the forecast for the region, which keeps the fire danger high. To breathe a sigh of relief, everyone should continue to heed sound medical advice from their providers and strive to keep the air around them clear.  

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