Coronavirus vs smoke inhalation during wildfires: How to differentiate between symptoms

Telling the difference between early symptoms of coronavirus and those of smoke inhalation due to exposure during wildfires can be challenging, but it is imperative to recognize signs of both, experts caution.

“It can be really difficult to differentiate between symptoms due to wildfire smoke exposure and early or mild COVID-19 infections, which is why if you are even a little concerned that new symptoms could indicate a COVID-19 infection you should definitely talk to a health care provider to help you determine if you should get tested,” Dr. Stephanie Christenson, assistant professor division of pulmonary, critical care, allergy and sleep medicine, department of medicine University of California, San Francisco, told Fox News in an email.

The overlap of coronavirus pandemic and the outbreak of wildfires raging along the West Coast are creating breathing issues in patients, and some confusion over symptoms, according to health experts Fox News spoke with, but there are some ways to tell the difference.

A view of downtown Portland from the East Bank Esplanade is seen on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. The entire Portland metropolitan region remains under a thick blanket of smog from wildfires that are burning around the state and residents are being advised to remain indoors due to hazardous air quality.
(AP Photo/Gillian Flaccus)

“In otherwise healthy individuals, wildfire smoke exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat with cough being the primary respiratory symptom. COVID-19 also can cause cough, often with some shortness of breath.” Dr. John Balmes, professor in the divisions of occupational and environmental medicine and pulmonary and critical care medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG), told Fox News.

CORONAVIRUS MAY HAVE SURFACED IN LOS ANGELES JUST BEFORE CHRISTMAS

“Fever is the main symptom that wildfire smoke doesn’t cause. Loss of the sense of smell and taste is also very specific for COVID-19,” Balmes said, adding that both exposure to wildfire smoke and COVID-19 can cause headache.

Christenson also told Fox News, “Both wildfire smoke and early or mild COVID-19 infection can give you symptoms of fatigue, body aches, shortness of breath, cough, runny nose, sore throat, and runny or congested nose.”

CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE CORONAVIRUS COVERAGE 

The pulmonary expert said that with coronavirus infection, certain symptoms will increase such as those that mimic a flu-like illness, “but even that won’t completely differentiate.”

SCIENTISTS MAY KNOW WHERE CORONAVIRUS ORIGINATED, STUDY SAYS

“Exposure history is probably the most likely thing to be able to help differentiate. “ Christenson told Fox News. “The worse the air quality is the more likely you are to get symptoms, even healthy people. Prolonged exposures (spending a lot of time outside) and strenuous activity during those exposures will increase your risk for symptoms from the wildfire smoke. This is why we tell people to try to avoid exercising outdoors when the air quality is bad.”

She also noted exposure to potential COVID-19 infected people is also an issue.

RECOVERING CORONAVIRUS PATIENTS EXPERIENCING JAW PAIN AS SYMPTOM POSSIBLY CAUSED BY BREATHING ISSUES

“If you have a lot of risk for COVID-19 exposure (e.g. people in your household interacting with many people outside of your household, particularly for long periods of time and without face coverings) your risk for COVID-19 definitely increases,” she said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms that are typical of a COVID-19 infection that are not typically present with wildfire smoke exposure include diarrhea, fever or chills and body or muscle aches.

“As the symptoms of both are so difficult to differentiate it is incredibly important to talk to your health care provider if you are experiencing symptoms to get guidance on whether to be tested for COVID-19 as stopping the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is such a huge priority right now,“ Christenson stated to Fox News.