As much as we want to enjoy every bit of summertime in the Pacific Northwest, wildfires are already kicking up east of the Cascades, reinforcing concerns about the predicted impact on Western Washington’s air this summer. We know it’s best to limit exposure to the outdoor air, but there are other things you can do in advance to make sure the impact of smoky air on your health is minimized.
First, a refresher on the wide range of symptoms: Smoke can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs and can cause dry, burning or watery eyes and a runny nose. But it can cause potentially more serious problems too, which may manifest as coughing or wheezing, shortness of breath even chest pain or headaches.
Although breathing in smoky air is unpleasant for anyone, those with chronic health issues are more sensitive to smoke as it can aggravate their conditions. This includes people with lung diseases—such as asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—but also those with heart disease or who have previously had a heart attack or stroke. Breathing fine particulate matter has shown to increase blood pressure and heart rate, and may also affect how blood clots.
In addition, children under 18, adults over 65, pregnant women and those with a cold or other respiratory infection should be vigilant about limiting exposure to smoke.
So what’s something you can do now? Consider buying a particulate respirator (labeled N95 or N100) in advance, before there’s a rush at the stores. Wearing this can help protect your lungs if you absolutely have to go outdoors. However, these are not advised for young children, those with chronic illnesses (as it may worsen their condition and make it harder to breathe) or people with beards (it won’t seal as well). Dust or surgical masks won’t keep the fine particles from entering your lungs.
Staying indoors doesn’t fully protect you from the smoke as indoor air quality can also be affected. To keep as much smoke out of your home as possible, close windows and doors to the outside, use fans and air conditioners to keep cool, and run an air purifier to reduce the amount of fine particles from smoke. If you don’t have an air conditioner and it’s too hot to be indoors, try to find a friend or relative to stay with. Other ways to keep down indoor pollution is to avoid smoking cigarettes, burning candles, using gas and vacuuming, unless the vacuum has a HEPA filter.
The Washington State Department of Health also advises keeping a “clean room” in your home for smoky days. The clean room should have enough space for everyone in your family and should be the coolest room in the house with a fan or air conditioner and air purifier.
Talk to your healthcare provider if you or a family member have heart or lung disease, and what steps you can take to be prepared for wildfire season. Seek medical help immediately if symptoms are serious.