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Billings doctor says COVID masks offer minimal protection from wildfire smoke

Posted at 6:02 PM, Sep 14, 2020

BILLINGS — Facial coverings have become a ubiquitous part of life over the past year, and with smoke pouring into Billings from the nation's wildfires, masks are better than nothing to filter out smoke, said Dr. Brad Fuller of Billings Monday.

"Something is still better than nothing. A damp cloth may help you, a surgical mask may help you, a gaiter may help you. So if you find something like that to kind of help thin out the dust and particles in the air, that may help you breathe a lot better," Fuller, who owns Fuller Family Medicine, said.

Fuller has been working as a board-certified physician at his private practice since 2011.

Facial coverings for COVID-19 don't protect against smaller particles in smoke that can cause lung irritation, according to the Centers For Disease Control. But the facial coverings can filter out some of the larger particles, Fuller said.

"No doubt, some of the smaller particles will creep through and maybe irritate the lungs or bronchial tubes, but I have to think that something is better than nothing and you may need to seek further care in getting an inhaler or we have lots of other tricks that (doctors) can do to help," Fuller said.

Foreign particles in smoke can enter the lungs and cause irritation, resulting in the symptoms of coughing, wheezing or burning in the chest, Fuller said. The same reaction can happen when the lungs are exposed to heavy dust or pet dander as well.

“There’s a lot of different particulate matter that causes irritation of the lining of the lungs or even the bronchial tubes. Any time you get an irritant in the lungs, the reflex of the body is to cause the bronchial tubes and lungs to constrict down and that can cause shortness of breath, or wheezing or burning in the chest," Fuller said.

To reduce the risk of smoke exposure, the easiest thing to do is stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed. If the air conditioning system allows, set it to recirculate the air inside the home instead of pulling in new air from outside.

It's also recommended that people limit strenuous outdoor activity that could pull air into the deeper parts of the lungs, Dr. Raymond Casciari, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California told Prevention magazine Monday.

A damp cloth placed over your nose and mouth may help some people breathe a little easier if they have nothing else, Fuller said.

"Even a damp towel, cloth or something with a little moisture in it might help filter out some of this smoke and help you breathe a little easier. At least to get you to where you are going, if that’s your car, house or place of work. Maybe a little facial covering like that would help you feel better," Fuller said.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality monitors air quality across the state and makes safety recommendations for how long people should be outside. To view the most current conditions, click here.

The CDC has more information about what wildfire smoke symptoms look like compared to COVID-19 symptoms that can be accessed by clicking here.

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