Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke

Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke

Dr. Ernest Levister

It’s an unusually bad wild fire season in the West, and for weeks people across the region have been breathing air thick with smoke. 

The haze on the horizon represents a lot of ambient smoke particles and particulate that’s burning from the six fires raging in southern California. It’s hanging in the air and hitting our lungs, hitting our nose and causing problems. 

The falling flecks of ash get lodged in our eyes and nose and cause irritating symptoms like itchy eyes, sore throat, headaches — even a little nausea. But it’s the fine particles — particulate matter that’s 2.5 microns or less in diameter — that are the biggest health hazard. They’re so small you can’t see them. 

When you inhale these really small particles, smaller than a few microns, they can land in your lungs and cause respiratory symptoms. They can even pass into your bloodstream. 

For most people, the risk of any serious complications, like chest pain, irregular heartbeat or even heart attack, is minimal. But for people who have underlying heart conditions or respiratory illnesses — such as asthma or chronic lung disease — exposure to wildfire smoke can be serious. Other high-risk groups include people over 65, children (whose lungs are still developing) and pregnant women, because of the risk to the fetus. 

The best way for everyone to minimize the risk when skies are smoky is to stay inside. 

Close all windows and doors unless it’s really hot. And use the recirculate button in your car or on your air conditioner, so you are not bringing in new particulate matter.” 

If you don’t have air conditioning, try spending some time in a library, mall, or community center. 

A standard dust mask that you can buy at the pharmacy won’t do you much good, Thomas says. It may keep out the large pieces of ash, but it also may cause you to inhale more deeply, and it won’t filter out the microscopic particles that can get into your lungs. An N95 mask can filter out 95 percent of smoke particles, but only if it’s fitted properly and dirty air doesn’t leak around the sides. 

If you are at high risk, you might want to invest in a a high-efficiency particulate (HEPA) air filter, which costs around $50 to $300. And when air conditions are bad, avoid burning candles, frying meat, even vacuuming, which can all add more tiny particles to the air. And drink lots of water. The fluid keeps your eyes, nose and throat moist, which can help alleviate irritation.

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