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Lots of wildfire smoke in the summer can lead to more flu outbreaks in the winter, according to a recent study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environment International.
"We could expect to see three to five times more flu cases after a bad fire season," said Erin Landguth, a co-author of the study and a researcher at the Center for Population Health Research at the University of Montana.
Landguth, along with a team of state, federal and university researchers, analyzed wildfire seasons and influenza cases over a ten-year span in Montana. They found that, after a particularly severe season in 2017, the number of people who contracted the flu the following winter increased from an average of 3,000 to around 10,000.
Scientists don't yet know the reasons why this happens, and it's unclear whether wildfire smoke could also cause an uptick in COVID-19 cases, according to Landguth.
However, air pollution can compromise immune systems.
"It causes inflammation and cell damage to our lungs," Landguth said. "So all of this suggests a concern and worry for our wildfire season in our region increasing our potential risk factors for COVID-19. Really in these times we want to minimize risk where possible."
That means keeping doors and windows closed, installing air purifiers and wearing N95 masks when the air becomes unhealthy.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.