Wildfires are a natural occurrence, and not only do they destroy plant life that is in their path, but they also produce smoke. This smoke Can Sometimes be very visible, but can also cause health problems, for those who already have respiratory problems, or whom are very young. So let's talk a little about this smoke and how we can protect ourselves from it.
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.
When wildfires burn in your area, they produce smoke that may reach your community.
What makes wildfire smoke a health hazard?
Wildfire smoke is different than a smoke you would inhale from a regular fire because of the particulate matter in the smoke. We see most health effects in patients with a predisposition to respiratory problems, in the young and in the elderly.
Of those that have respiratory problems, patients with asthma are most common, and can have more symptoms if exposed to the particulate matter. In this case, they need to use their rescue medications more frequently.
Wildfire smoke can persist for days or even months, depending on the extent of the wildfire. Although the air may look clear, it may have particulate matter that can make asthma worse or trigger an attack.
What is the main concern for patients with respiratory problems?
Most of the time we worry about prolonged asthma attacks. During wildfires, these attacks can last longer than they normally would. If someone is having an asthma attack due to high smoke exposure from the outdoors, we recommend that they try to stay indoors. If they must go outdoors, they should use their rescue medications prior to going outside. If outdoors, they should try to limit the amount of vigorous activity.
Who is at greatest risk from wildfire smoke?.
• People who have heart or lung diseases, like heart disease, chest pain, lung disease, or asthma, are at higher risk from wildfire smoke. In general, people with these conditions are at higher risk of having health problems than healthy people.
• Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke. This may be due to their increased risk of heart and lung diseases.
• Children are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke. Children's airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. In addition, children often spend more time outdoors engaged in activity and play.
• 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.
• 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:.
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. They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online. You must make sure they are N-95 or better. Regular dusk mask or surgical masks will not help you.
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.
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 USA EBN.org.
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.
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.
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. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.
Follow the advice of your doctor or other healthcare provider about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Consider evacuating the area if you are having trouble breathing.
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.
Evacuate from the path of wildfires. Listen to the news to learn about current evacuation orders. Follow the instructions of local officials about when and where to evacuate. Take only essential items with you. Follow designated evacuation routes, others may be blocked, and expect heavy traffic.
Wildfire Readiness (CHILDREN).
What are some symptoms parents can look for?
• Decreased activity level
• Increased coughing
• Wheezing and/or audible breathing sounds
• Change in color or pallor of skin
• Easily fatigued
• Breathing hard
To see if a child is having problems breathing, observe if they breathing fast; in smaller children, look for their ribs sucking in (called retraction).
What are the first steps any parent should take — whether or not their child has a respiratory issue — if they suspect smoke inhalation?
With the dense smoke, anyone can start coughing and wheezing and have problems, whether or not they have an underlying respiratory problem.
• Bring the child indoors and have him or her rest until symptoms subside.
• If symptoms persist, seek medical opinion. In that case, the child may need an inhaler or another medication to help them during the exposure.
• Parents should also seek medical attention if they notice their children using their rescue medications more often than normal (a good gauge is if they are using the medications as frequently as every four hours).
• If the smoke is especially thick outside and/or there's a lot of particulate matter in the air, and you've been outside, change your clothes once you come indoors. Kids will want to be close to you and could inhale the matter that comes off your clothes, especially if you work outdoors.
• If children get red or itchy eyes — sometimes they can get soot in their eyes — rinse out the eyes just with water. With the heat, drink many fluids.
At what point should parents seek emergency care?
If they notice:
• Any change in their child's behavior
• Real difficulty breathing
• Any change in their level of consciousness
• Any concern for child
What about over-the-counter medications?
There aren't any good over-the-counter medications for exposure to smoke from a wildfire. The most important thing is to try to clear the secretions from your lungs, which your lungs will normally do. Keeping well hydrated is important, in that it keeps the mucus in your lungs thinner so they can clear out the secretions.