Wildfires are increasingly becoming a regular occurrence, especially along the West Coast. In addition to the damage wildfires can do to structures and land, the effects of smoke can cause serious health problems.
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A recent study shows that air pollutant exposure can increase the likelihood that someone might get COVID-19. The reasoning? Breathing in smoke creates an already weakened immune system that can’t fight off viruses like normal.
Pulmonologist Neha Solanki, MD, discusses the dangers of wildfire smoke and how to protect the air you breathe.
How does smoke impact your health?
Smoke is made of particulate matter (solid or liquid particles from items that have burned like houses and manufactured items), fumes and gases like carbon monoxide.
Inhaling wildfire smoke — which can travel from the West Coast to as far as New York — can cause airway inflammation and lead to lung conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). There’s also a connection between wildfire smoke and cardiovascular disease.
“Pollution from wildfire smoke can rise up to 14 miles into the air and then is carried with wind currents which is why it affects everyone,” says Dr. Solanki. “So even if you don’t live directly near wildfires, you’re still exposed to all of that toxic pollution.”
Who is at risk?
Anyone with underlying chronic respiratory conditions or cardiovascular disease is affected more by wildfire smoke. Also, those who are pregnant, people over the age of 65, smokers and children are more likely to experience the negative effects of wildfire smoke.
“We breathe in smoke, and it gets into our bloodstream,” says Dr. Solanki. “Then the particles stick to a location in our body and the immune system activates and can create an inflammatory response.”
For those who are pregnant, breathing in the toxic smoke can delay their baby’s development and make children more likely to get asthma later in life.
How to protect yourself
First, make sure you’re out of harm’s way from any active wildfires. Then you can improve the air quality around you using these tips:
- Stay inside. Pay attention to air quality alerts. Many cellphones will send out notifications if the air quality is concerning. You can also visit airnow.gov to get real-time information on the air quality where you live.
- Keep your windows closed. Keep those toxic fumes out of your house by using your air conditioner, if you have one. Even while driving, Dr. Solanki suggest keeping windows up and circulating the air within the car.
- Don’t burn candles or use wood-burning stoves. Yes, even something as small as a candle can add pollutants into the air.
- Avoid secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke can cause bronchitis, pneumonia and even lung cancer.
- Use an air purifier. Air purifiers can help filter out damaging particles by up to 85%. Look for one that has a HEPA filter and even a carbon filter, which can help eliminate odors.
- Wear a mask. While cloth and surgical masks can help stop the spread of COVID-19, they don’t protect your lungs from fine particles in wildfire smoke. If available, use a medical-grade N95 mask instead.
What are air quality alerts?
Determined by the number of different particles in the air — ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide — the air quality can range from zero to 500.
If the air quality is zero to 50, it is considered safe. Ranges from 50 to 100 signal an increase in harmful particles, so it is recommended that individuals with chronic respiratory diseases should stay inside. If the air quality is above 200, it’s cause for concern and everyone — underlying conditions or not — should stay inside.
Think you’ve been exposed to wildfire smoke? There are things you can do at home like drinking lots of water, using a saline nasal spray and increasing your intake of antioxidants. If you have trouble breathing, have a cough or chest tightness, Dr. Solanki says you should seek treatment immediately.
“As wildfires are becoming more and more prevalent, we’re also seeing more and more chronic respiratory diseases in the same areas as well,” she says. “If you have symptoms, then definitely see a physician.”