Is that cough coronavirus or wildfire toxins?

September Online

Sept. 18, 2020


Dr. Ryan Cudahy, a family and sports medicine physician who practices in the San Francisco area, said that while he has not seen a sharp increase in patients with wildfire-related injuries or conditions, his practice is hearing from patients who are unsure whether the respiratory ailments they are experiencing are from the fires or coronavirus.

Thick smoke from nearby wildfires blankets Berkeley Hills, near San Francisco, at 11 a.m., Sept. 9. Doctors say the toxins in the smoke can be harmful if inhaled. They urge people to monitor the air quality index to know when it's best to stay inside.

Photo by Eliot Hertenstein

The toxins being spewed into the air from the wildfires are "becoming basically just another confounding factor, along with everything else going on in 2020," said Cudahy, who is part of the Dignity Health Medical Group - San Francisco. The medical group is under the umbrella of the CommonSpirit Health system.

Unless patients have symptoms that clearly point to COVID-19 – such as fever, chills and a productive cough — Cudahy says their conditions are being treated without testing for the virus.

To ward off wildfire-related ailments, Cudahy said that he and other doctors are advising patients to be mindful of the air quality index figures released by the National Weather Service. Those numbers are provided among the forecast details on most smartphone weather apps. When the index figure goes beyond 150, as it has in recent weeks in the wildfire zone, health experts urge people to limit their exposure to outdoor air as much as possible.

Cudahy added that while their use is important, he worries that the cloth masks that most people are already wearing masks as part of the pandemic prevention might have a downside. Those coverings are an effective barrier to the droplets known to spread the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, but Cudahy said they don't keep out the toxins released by the wildfires.

"I just don't want people to have a false confidence that they're not going to be exposed at all if they're wearing their COVID mask," he said.

The wiser strategy, he said, is to avoid the outdoors when the air quality is in the unsafe range.