Lung defense in the face of wildfires and a pandemic |

Lung defense in the face of wildfires and a pandemic

Kari Dequine Harden / Steamboat Pilot & Today
Smoke plume from the Cameron Peak Fire taken on 8/15/2020 from 45 miles away on the Routt Divide Trail, 10 miles south of Rabbit Ears Peak
Courtesy Photo

With no end in sight to smoky skies, the COVID-19 pandemic and the coming flu season, there’s never been a better time to pay attention to — and take extra care of — your lungs.

In terms of smoke coming from the wildfires surrounding Steamboat Springs, the people who most need to take extra caution are those with existing respiratory issues, said Dr. Sarah Jolley, an assistant professor of pulmonary and critical care medicine at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

For people with conditions including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, or any other form of lung disease, wildfire smoke could “increase the risk of exacerbation and infection,” Jolley said.

If you do have any respiratory issues, pay close attention to the daily air quality and stay indoors more on smoky days, she said. And if you do go outside, go in the morning or evening.

For those in good health and with strong lungs, Jolley advises paying attention to symptoms while out and about — if the smoky air makes you cough or have a shortness of breath, then limit your exposure.

While smoke levels change throughout the day, mornings are better because of ozone levels, which are affected by hydrocarbons in the air — like wildfire smoke — and typically peak in the afternoon.

If the air quality is poor, Jolley doesn’t say you shouldn’t go for a hike or run or bike, but she suggests considering shortening the distance, going slower and, again, paying attention to whether you feel any symptoms related to the smoke. There’s a balance in that physical activity is very good for overall lung health.

“In people who are otherwise healthy, we don’t think that those symptoms translate to significant long-term health consequences,” Dr. Anthony Gerber, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Health, said in an article in The Denver Post about safely exercising when there is wildfire smoke.

“In people who do have pre-existing lung disease, or are older, or very young, we’re more concerned,” Gerber continued. “To some extent, this is based on the level of the air pollution.” Gerber also includes pregnant women among the sensitive groups.

Some days may look better than others, but the smoke isn’t going away any time soon.

To the south and southwest, the Grizzly Creek fire near Glenwood Springs isn’t expected to be contained until Sept. 1. And the Pine Gulch fire north of Grand Junction had burned more 85,000 acres as of Monday afternoon, with only 7% containment. Two more fires — Cameron Peak and Williams Fork — continue to grow to the east.

There may be some precipitation midweek, according to the Steamboat-based forecast site, “however, with four wildfires partially encircling north-central Colorado and continued dry lower levels of the atmosphere, this moisture may do more harm than good if it contributes to dry lightning and gusty, erratic winds. … The only good part of the forecast for fire weather concerns is that winds should be generally light through next weekend as we are underneath the ridge of high pressure, except around possible storms.”

Paying attention to your lungs can make a big difference in the face of infectious respiratory diseases, including influenza and COVID-19.

“Lung health is so critical during this pandemic,” said Dr. Keith McEwen in an article in Community Health Report. “Anything that improves your lungs and overall health improves your chance of fighting off this disease.”

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