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Is your throat scratchy from Colorado’s wildfire smoke or coronavirus? Here’s how to tell.

The air quality in Denver was worse than in Beijing and Kolkata the past few days. Here is what health experts are saying about going outside.

The sun sets over a hazy downtown Denver. (Taylor Van Berkel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The haze that’s blocking out the mountains, blue sky and even the sun across much of Colorado is full of tiny particles that are about 1/30th the width of a human hair.

They’re coming from the “biomass combustion” of wildfires in Colorado and California, and they’re so small that a mask will not stop them from going down our throats and deep into our lungs. Once there, they settle into the air sacs that get oxygen to the bloodstream. 

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The fine particulate matter is the reason the air quality in Denver has been worse even than Los Angeles and New York, Beijing and Kolkata, India. 

Every day for going on two weeks, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has placed the Front Range on an “action day alert,” meaning the particulate matter and ozone in the air is unhealthy to breathe. The worst of the air stretches from Douglas County on the south end to Larimer County up north. 

It means even healthy people should limit their time outside. And people with asthma, other respiratory diseases or cardiovascular issues should pretty much stay inside with the windows shut and the air conditioning turned on, health officials said Monday. 

Denver and surrounding towns spent the weekend choked by wildfire pollution, climbing into the red zone of the Air Quality Index, a measurement created by the Environmental Protection Agency. The scale goes from a healthy green all the way to a dangerous maroon. Red is considered unsafe even for healthy people. 

The Air Quality Index, developed by the EPA, ranges from healthy green to hazardous maroon. Denver and surrounding cities were in the red the past few days.

Colorado’s poor air quality feels like one more blow after a long five months of quarantine and social distancing — one that is causing some people added anxiety. 

The symptoms of inhaling too much wildfire smoke — headache, cough and a throat that feels like you smoked cigarettes — are somewhat similar to symptoms of COVID-19. The virus affects people differently, but the telltale signs a person should get a coronavirus test are typically fever, and, oftentimes, gastrointestinal symptoms. 

“There is some overlap,” said John Putman, who is director of environmental programs at the state health department. “You can have a scratchy throat both for the smoke and for COVID.”

Putman has given up his morning hikes because of the smog, and he admits it’s driving him a bit nuts. 

The gyms are closed because of coronavirus. Social distancing guidelines are in effect, and there’s a statewide mask mandate for public indoor spaces. The outdoors — whether running, cycling, hiking or camping — is where many Coloradans have found their sanity during the pandemic. 

And then the wildfires and the 90-degree days came.

As the fires burn, gases and particles containing metals and minerals are released into the air. The mixture is highly toxic, and gets worse the closer a person is to the fire. Wildfire smoke contains carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide. And, to compound the air quality problem, all of that leads to higher ozone levels in the air. 

“Our particulate levels are so high, and combine that with high ozone … We are now urging everyone to take it slow and keep inside,” said Scott Landes, an air quality meteorologist at the state health department’s Meteorology and Prescribed Fire Unit. 

Landes, who has reduced his normally strenuous outdoor cycling routine to half the mileage, at half the intensity, realizes that asking people to stay inside is a tough ask. 

“There’s definitely a mental health portion to all of this,” Landes said. “What we can say is that this is not going to last forever. Use a little bit of patience.” 

Resturant patrons wait outside for open tables or carry outside Colorado Boy Pizzeria & Brewery on Main Street in downtown Montrose Friday Aug. 21, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ash and larger particles in the air are captured by the mucus in our noses, and pretty commonly create burning nostrils, itchy eyes and scratchy throats. It’s the fine particles that can travel thousands of miles on upper-level winds that are more dangerous, Landes said. 

“They’re mostly made of very small carbon particles that you breathe into your respiratory system and you are unable to breathe back out,” he said. 

The fine particles are called PM 2.5 — particulate matter that measures just 2.5 microns. For perspective, a human hair is about 70 microns. 

It’s possible that an N95 mask would help filter such tiny particles, but a cloth mask or neck gaiter does not, he said. The lung damage is cumulative, so keep that in mind before deciding to go on a 5-mile, outdoor run just because the air seems a little clearer one day, and you’ve breathed polluted air for the previous few days, Landes said.

Air quality across most of the state worsened after major wildfires began to rage earlier this month, including the Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction, the Grizzly Creek Fire next to Glenwood Springs and the Cameron Peak Fire near Fort Collins. Then over the weekend, smoke from California wildfires added to the haze in Colorado, Landes said. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Dr. Fernando Holguin, a pulmonary sciences professor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said it’s unclear whether poor air quality can put people at greater risk of catching the coronavirus. It makes sense, however, because inflamed lungs are more susceptible to infection, he said. 

Holguin, who also is director of asthma clinical and research programs, said many of his patients have struggled since the wildfires started. He expects there is a spike in the number of people with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases visiting urgent care centers and emergency departments this month. 

Wildfire smoke affects not only the lungs, but the entire cardiovascular system, he said. The fine particles inhaled into the lung sacs are also tiny enough to get into the bloodstream, affecting circulation, the brain and other organs. 

The particles inflame the lungs, as well as other parts of the body, and can make blood coagulate, Holguin said. 

He recommends that not even healthy people exercise outside until the smoke clears — or at least try to choose a time of day when the air is the most clear, possibly early morning. The lungs of a person who is running or cycling are working overtime as they gasp for extra oxygen. “Your overall dose of pollution that your body is receiving increases dramatically as well,” he said. 

“Unfortunately, the most reliable thing is to be inside a building that is well-sealed and air-conditioned. It’s tough advice to take. People want to be outside, especially in a state like ours.”

The Pine Gulch Fire near Grand Junction is burning on more than 134,000 acres. (Handout)

If people have any confusion about whether they have COVID-19 or just inhaled too much smoke, they should go get a coronavirus test, Gov. Jared Polis said recently. 

“If you are experiencing respiratory issues, please get tested,” he said. “It may be the poor air, or it may be COVID. Or it may be the flu. But it’s important for you and your family to determine whether in fact it’s COVID.”

Staff writer Jesse Paul contributed to this report.

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