Riding bike with mask on
(Photo credit: Bastian Greshake Tzovaras / Flickr)

This year, wildfires have raged across many parts of the western United States, filling the air with smoke. As a result, communities are experiencing dangerous air pollution at the same time that they are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

And researchers say breathing that smoky air can make people more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Sarah Henderson is with the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control.

“Your body perceives that smoke as a foreign threat, the same way it would perceive a virus or a bacterium,” she says. “And it mounts an immunological response against the smoke, trying to kill it, basically. And what this serves to do is kind of distract your immune system.”

The smoke also makes cilia – tiny hairlike structures that help keep our lungs and airways clean – less effective.

“That means the virus that makes it into your body may not get cleared out of your body as efficiently as it normally would,” Henderson says.

So she says it’s especially important for people in fire-prone regions to minimize their exposure to COVID-19 and take precautions to avoid smoky air.

Reporting credit: Stephanie Manuzak/ChavoBart Digital Media.

Diana Madson contributed regularly to Yale Climate Connections from 2014 to 2021. She enjoys exploring U.S.-based stories about unexpected and innovative solutions to climate change. In addition to her...