Breathing in wildfire smoke
Breathing for residents across the west coast of the U.S. is becoming increasingly difficult as wildfires continue to spread across large portions of several states, according to news reports.
"Because of the severe wind in the areas involved, exposure to wildfire smoke can even occur if an individual is located several hundred miles away from the actual fire," says pulmonologist Dr. Clayton Cowl, Chair of the Mayo Clinic Division of Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine.
Although wildfire smoke contains a number of respiratory irritants, such as particulate matter, hydrocarbons and other organic chemicals, Dr. Cowl says probably the greatest health risk is from ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs.
He adds that, unfortunately, use of a standard paper dust mask, while probably better than nothing, really does not fully protect the respiratory tract from most particulate matter that becomes airborne.
These particles can create nasal congestion and cause eyes to sting and burn, but they also can aggravate the respiratory status of people with chronic heart and lung disease.
Watch: Dr. Cowl discusses health risks of breathing wildfire smoke.
Journalists: Broadcast-quality sound bites with Dr. Cowl are in the downloads at the end of the post. Please courtesy, "Clayton Cowl, M.D., Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, Mayo Clinic."
"The most vulnerable populations include the elderly, children, pregnant women, and those with chronic lung or heart disease," says Dr. Arveen Bhasin, a Mayo Clinic allergist. "Common symptoms include coughing, wheezing, trouble breathing, chest pain, irritated eyes, sneezing and scratchy throat."
"Probably the greatest health risk is from ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs."
– Dr. Clayton Cowl
All types of smoke inhalation, from cigarettes to campfires, have a common denominator, according to Dr. Cowl: You are breathing in air from combustible products. He says the wildfires consume vegetation, homes, building structures with plastics and other products that release thousands of airborne chemicals. "Some of those chemicals are extremely toxic, such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and chlorine-based compounds," says Dr. Cowl.
Dr. Bhasin recommends that people stay indoors, keeping windows and doors closed, both at home and in the car. "Run the air conditioner to recirculate clean air, and avoid cigarette smoke or vaping," says Dr. Bhasin. "Do not burn anything in the home including wood, gas stoves or candles."
Dr. Cowl agrees and says air purifiers can be considered, as can personal respiratory protection. He says the best type of air purifier is one with a high-efficiency particulate air filter. "Use of ozone or ionic air purifiers are not typically suggested for protection from wildfire smoke since they provide minimal protection from the very small particles released, referred to as ultrafine particles of less than 0.3 microns in diameter," says Dr. Cowl.
Dr. Bhasin reminds people that it's important to take medications as prescribed and have refills available. Keep an eye on local air quality reports, and if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms, it's important to seek medical care.
"Maintaining adequate oral hydration by drinking water and other fluids is also important to preserve the function of cilia, the microscopic broom-like cells in the airways that help sweep out particulate contaminants inhaled from the environment," adds Dr. Cowl.
Learn more from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health
Smoke may smell good, but it's not good for you
While not everyone has the same sensitivity to wildfire smoke, it’s still a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it. And when smoke is heavy, such as can occur in close proximity to a wildfire, it’s bad for everyone.
Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.
Some people are more at risk
It’s especially important for you to pay attention to local air quality reports during a fire if you are
- a person with heart or lung disease, such as heart failure, angina, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma.
- an older adult, which makes you more likely to have heart or lung disease than younger people.
- caring for children, including teenagers, because their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults, they’re more likely to be active outdoors, and they’re more likely to have asthma.
- a person with diabetes, because you are more likely to have underlying cardiovascular disease.
- a pregnant woman, because there could be potential health effects for both you and the developing fetus.
How to tell if smoke is affecting you
High concentrations of smoke can trigger a range of symptoms.
- Anyone may experience burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing.i
- If you have heart or lung disease, smoke may make your symptoms worse
- People with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, or fatigue.
- People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.
It’s important to limit your exposure to smoke - especially if you are at increased risk for particle-related effects. Here are some steps you can take to protect your health:
If you have heart, vascular or lung disease, including asthma, talk with your health care provider.
Prepare for fire season if you live in a fire-prone area
If you have heart, vascular or lung disease, including asthma, talk with your health care provider before fire season to make plans. Discuss when to leave the area, how much medicine to have on hand, and your asthma action plan if you have asthma.
Have a several-day supply of nonperishable foods that do not require cooking. Cooking - especially frying and broiling - can add to indoor pollution levels.
Consider buying an air cleaner. Some room air cleaners can help reduce particle levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your rooms as specified by the manufacturer. If you choose to buy an air cleaner, don’t wait until there’s a fire - make that decision beforehand. Note: Don’t use an air cleaner that generates ozone. That just puts more pollution in your home.
Have a supply of N-95 or P-100 masks on hand, and learn how to use them correctly. (1 pg., 650KB, about PDF) They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online.
If you have heart, vascular or lung disease, including asthma, talk with your health care provider.
During a fire
Pay attention to local air quality reports. As smoke gets worse, the concentration of particles in the air increases - and so should the steps you take to protect yourself. Air quality reports are available through local news media, your local air agency or on airnow.gov.
Use common sense to guide your activities.Even if you don’t have a monitor in your area, if it looks or smells smoky outside, it's probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run. And it's probably not a good time for children - especially children with asthma - to be vigorously active outdoors, or active outdoors for prolonged periods of time. If you are active outdoors, pay attention to symptoms. Symptoms are an indication that you need to reduce exposure.
Dust masks aren't enough!Paper “dust” masks or surgical masks will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in wildfire smoke. Scarves or bandanas (wet or dry) won’t help, either. Particulate masks known as N-95 or P-100 respirators will help, but they must fit well and be used correctly. They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online.
If you are advised to stay indoors, take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep your windows and doors closed - unless it's extremely hot outside. Run your air conditioner, if you have one. Keep the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside. Open windows to air out the house when air quality improves. Note: If you don't have an air conditioner, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. In these cases, seek alternative shelter, such as with relatives or a cleaner air shelter.
Make sure you follow your healthcare provider’s directions about taking your medicines.
Help keep particle levels inside lower.When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though you may not be able to see them. Try to avoid using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves - and even candles. Don't vacuum. That stirs up particles already inside your home. And don't smoke. That puts even more pollution in your lungs, and in the lungs of people around you.
If you have asthma or another lung disease, make sure you follow your healthcare provider’s directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma action plan. Have at least a five-day supply of medication on hand. Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms worsen.
If you have cardiovascular disease, follow your healthcare provider’s directions and call if your symptoms worsen. If you think you are having a heart attack or stroke, dial 9-1-1.
Get air quality information: If there is an active fire in your area, follow your local news, the airnow.gov website or your state air quality website for up-to-date information.
Learn more about smoke and health: Wildfire Smoke, A Guide for Public Health Officials
For information about home air cleaners: Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home
For a list of certified air cleaning devices: California Certified Air Cleaning Devices
Learn the right way to use an N-95 or P-100 particulate respirator mask:Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke
What to do before, during, and after a wildfire:Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Wildfire Page
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Symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure to watch out for
You can see it, you can feel it, you can maybe even taste it. Smoke from the wildfires in Oregon and California is blanketing the Puget Sound area.
Doctors say it’s best to stay inside and avoid it altogether, but acknowledge that that’s not possible for everyone.
The best protection is an N95 mask, but those are being saved for medical professionals and first responders during the pandemic.
Some doctors have had an uptick in calls from patients who are concerned.
Dr. Albert Merati, Medical Director of Otolaryngology- Head and Neck Surgery Center at UW Medical Center, said the smoke could give you an ear infection, besides your eyes and throat.
“People might have hoarseness, they might have a dry or itchy throat, or pain in the throat, but more commonly we’re hearing about nasal congestion, and we expect to see an increase in the incidence of ear infections,” Merati said.
He said people should pay attention to what they’re drinking if they are feeling smoke effects.
“While most of us enjoy having a carbonated beverage, an alcoholic beverage, or a cup of coffee, those things are fine in moderation. And some of us who are a little more susceptible. If you feel like your throat is getting irritated during this time, maybe a little more water. Maybe avoid the irritants for a couple of days,” Merati said.
The smoke is sticking around for more of this week.
“Even after the smoke comes and goes, I wonder if there will be people who find they have persistent symptoms that it wasn’t the lingering effect of the smoke, but rather, this experience unearthed a problem that was already brewing,” Merati said. “So, if you do have things that aren’t quite right even when the air is clear — nasal congestion, pain, difficulty breathing, sore throat I think it’s a good time to connect with your primary care physician or ear nose throat doctor.”
Cox Media Group
7 Ways to Protect Your Health from Wildfire Smoke
The summer of 2017 is turning out to be quite the smoky affair.
With a record snowfall last winter — and the resulting vigorous growth of vegetation that serves as fire fuel — northern Nevada and northeastern California have felt like a giant tinder box waiting for a spark. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of sparks. The fire tracker website InciWeb listed 16 active fires on Aug. 7, 2017.
The Trouble with Fire
In addition to structure and habitat destruction, wildfires produce smoke that can reach far beyond the communities where the burn is occurring. Wildfire smoke is a mixture of gas and fine particles from the burning trees and plants. Wildfire smoke can cause the following physical problems: watery or dry eyes, persistent coughing, wheezing, scratchy throat or irritated sinuses, headaches, shortness of breath, asthma attacks or lung irritation, irregular heartbeat, chest pain or fatigue. It can also worsen chronic heart and lung disease.
The purity of the air is so important, the government created an index to measure it. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a number used by government agencies to let the public know the air’s pollution level. In regions like northern Nevada, the AQI is often part of the weather report we get every morning.
The higher the AQI, the more risk there is to people in the affected area. The most vulnerable are those who already have heart or lung disease (including asthma), older folks and children. As the AQI increases, more sectors of the population are affected. At levels above 200, the air poses a hazard for everyone.
RELATED: Is it allergies or a sinus infection? Understanding the differences.
So what is the best way to cope with daily life in a fire region to ensure your health? Our team offers seven tips for decreasing your risk from wildfire smoke.
1. Use the Air Quality Index as your guide
Chart courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In fire-prone regions, the AQI is often part of the weather report we get every morning. Use this report to determine how the wildfire could be affecting the health of you and your loved ones every day during fire season.
2. Stay indoors and keep indoor air clean
If you’re advised to stay indoors, work to keep the air inside as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed. Use fans and indoor air filters. Run an air conditioner, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. If you don’t have an air conditioner and it’s too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek shelter in a designated evacuation and cooling center.
RELATED: When to pay attention to a sore throat.
3. Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution
Burning candles, fireplaces or gas stoves can increase indoor pollution. Vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home, contributing to indoor pollution. Smoking also puts even more pollution into the air.
4. Remove smoky attire
If you are outdoors in the smoke and your clothes become smoky, remove them, shower and put on clean clothes. Wash your smoky clothes as soon as possible, to avoid having them pass the smell onto other things.
5. Follow your doctor’s advice
If you are in an at-risk group due to respiratory or health challenges, discuss your air pollution action plan with your physician. If the smoke is causing you to have breathing problems, seek a cleaner environment and contact your doctor for advice if your symptoms worsen.
6. Do not rely on dust masks for protection
The dust masks found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust, and will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke.
7. Get out of a smoky environment
Even if you are not facing a mandatory evacuation, if the air has become so smoky that you are experiencing discomfort or health issues, move to a less smoky area if you are able. That may mean driving to a town upwind for a time.
Even if you try your best to avoid wildfire smoke, sometimes it cannot be avoided. If you experience health problems, see your physician for treatment. The experts at Sierra Nevada, Ear, Nose & Throat are available to help you with ear, nose or throat challenges, whether they are a result of wildfire smoke or some other cause. Call 775.883.7666 for an appointment.
American Lung Association
Infection from wildfire smoke sinus
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