Dealing with the health effects of wildfire smoke requires not only individual judgement, but community cooperation as well. The amount of smoke people are exposed to depends upon a number of things, from the type of fuel feeding the fire to the direction the wind is blowing and the terrain around the fire. Smoke commonly dilutes over distance, yet plumes of smoke that have been carried for even hundreds of miles may still contain particles that are sufficient enough to impact a person’s health. Wildfire smoke can harm the body in multiple ways the eyes, lungs and heart are a few of the body’s organs that can be impacted when the body is exposed to excessive wildfire smoke. To avoid sickness caused by wildfire smoke exposure, follow these seven tips:
- Pay attention to local air quality reports: When a wildfire occurs in your region, watch for news and health warnings about smoke. Be sure to pay close attention to public health messages and take extra safety measures like avoiding spending time outdoors.
- Pay attention to visibility guides if they are available: Some communities have guidelines to help people estimate air quality based on how far they can see. Many places that provide air quality indexes include airports and national park areas.
- If you are told to stay indoors, stay indoors: Avoid exposure to wildfire smoke by staying inside and keeping windows and doors closed unless it is very hot outside. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. If it is too hot and you are without air conditioning, seek shelter elsewhere.
- Do not add to indoor pollution: When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles or fireplaces. Also do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles inside the home. Avoid smoking tobacco or other products that will add even more pollution into the air.
- Follow your doctor’s advice: If you suffer from asthma or another lung disease, follow your doctor’s advice about medication and other respiratory management plans.
- Do not rely on dust masks for protection: Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found in hardware stores trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. When properly worn, a “N95” mask will offer some protection.
- Avoid smoke exposure during outdoor recreation: Both wildfires and prescribed burns can create smoky conditions. Check to see if any wildfires are happening or if any prescribed burns are planned before you travel to a park or forest.
If you do find yourself exposed to wildfire smoke, be aware of the symptoms associated with exposure including:
- Trouble breathing normally
- Stinging eyes
- A scratchy throat
- Runny nose
- Irritated sinuses
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- An asthma attack
- Fast heartbeat
Older adults, pregnant women, children and people with pre-existing respiratory and heart conditions are especially at risk when it comes to exposure to wildfire smoke. However, even healthy individuals can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air.