Smoke from wildfires and how to protect your health.
For the people of Colorado and many other areas this year, we have been experiencing the smoky air from the many wildfires going on throughout the area, including the wildfires raging in California. Colorado is like a giant tinder box with red flag warnings and high fire danger in many locations.
While the destruction to structures and to the habitat are devastating, wildfires also produce smoke that can reach far past the areas where the fire is burning.
The air quality in Colorado seems very much like the air pollution in New York City.
What is wildfire smoke made up of?
The smoke is a mix of gases, and fine particles from burning trees, plants, buildings, and other materials.
Wildfire smoke causes health issues
The smoke or particle pollution causes physical problems such as watery or dry stinging eyes, a scratchy throat, runny nose, headaches, coughing, wheezing, trouble breathing, shortness of breath, irritated sinuses, asthma issues, lung problems, irregular or fast heartbeat, chest pain, and fatigue.
It certainly causes more problems for those with chronic heart or lung disease, asthma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), diabetes, the elderly, children, and pregnant women.
AQI or Air Quality Index
The purity of air is so important that the government created an index to measure it. This is called the Air Quality Index or AQI. It is the number that the government agencies use to let you know what the air pollution level is.
The higher the AQI is the more of a health risk it is to the affected area. This is extremely important for those at high risk. To see air quality conditions and get local air quality data visit: https://www.airnow.gov/
Photo courtesy of North Coast Unified Air Quality Management District
Tips for protecting yourself from breathing Wildfire smoke
- Pay attention to the air quality reports the US Air Quality Index. While the wildfires are burning, pay attention to the news and health warnings about smoke.
- Pay attention to visibility guides. Not every community measures the number of particles in the air, but many have guidelines to help people estimate air quality based on how far you can see.
- Reduce exposure to smoke. Stay inside and limit your time outside. If it isn’t necessary, don’t do it. Keep your windows and doors closed.
- Keep the indoor air clean. Fans and air filters can help. Run the air conditioner but keep the filter clean to prevent smoke from coming in.
- Use a freestanding indoor air filter with particle removal without producing ozone. This can help protect people with asthma, heart disease, or other respiratory conditions as well as the elderly and children. Make sure to follow the instructions on filter replacement. Avoid electronic air cleaners. They produce small amounts of ozone which is a respiratory irritant.
Protecting your Health During these Smokey Times
- Do not add to indoor pollution – Indoor air quality is important. Don’t burn candles, incense, and fireplaces. Do not smoke tobacco or other products indoors. Avoid spraying aerosol products, frying, and broiling meat, or anything that burns including candles.
- Keep your vacuum filter clean. Vacuuming can stir up particles already in your home. Try to vacuum when the elderly, children, or people with health issues are not around.
- Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper masks or material masks trap large particles such as sawdust. But they will not protect your lungs from smoke.
- Reduce activity. By reducing physical activity, lowers the dose of inhaled air pollutants and reduces health risks during a smoke event.
- Avoid additional exposure. Before you travel to a park or forest, know where the fires are and where the smoke is traveling.
- Remove smoky clothing. If you have been outdoors and your clothes absorb the smoke, remove them, shower, and put on clean clothes. Wash the smoky clothing as soon as possible. This helps to prevent the smell from passing onto other things in your home.
- Get an N-95 or P-100 particulate respirator mask. Learn how to use them. They can help but only if they fit well and are used correctly.
- Follow your doctor’s advice about medicine and your respiratory management plan. If you are in the at-risk group with respiratory problems, asthma, lung disease, or cardiovascular disease you need to discuss an air pollution action plan with your doctor. Are you experiencing breathing problems? If symptoms worsen, call your doctor.
Symptoms of Smoke Inhalation
- Burning eyes
- Runny nose
- Difficulty breathing
People with heart and lunch disease may make your symptoms worse. You may experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, or fatigue. You may not be able to breathe as deeply as you normally would.
Use Common Sense
If it looks smoky out, it’s not a good time to do things outdoors. Now is not the time to mow your lawn or go for a jog. Keep the kids inside. Use the visibility guidelines mentioned above to determine what the air quality is. People who are sensitive include older adults, children, people with heart or lung disease, or asthma. Be vigilant about taking the medications prescribed by your doctor.
If you experience health problems, see your physician for treatment. The experts at Colorado ENT are here to help you with ear, nose, and throat issues, whether they are caused by wildfire smoke or something completely unrelated. Call us today at 719-867-7800.
For more information about this, see the PDF, a guide for public health officials.