Memorial Regional Health Living Well Column: Protect your health during wildfire season |

Memorial Regional Health Living Well Column: Protect your health during wildfire season

If you see smoke or smell smoke from a nearby wildfire, it is most likely affecting your health—especially if you are outside, being active. The fine particles created when organic matter burns can irritate your eyes and nose, and penetrate deep into your lungs, causing a myriad of health problems. If you have lung or heart conditions, take extra precautions to avoid smoky air.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breathing in wildfire smoke can cause shortness of breath, chest pain, bronchitis, runny nose, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses and headaches. If you have a heart condition, you might feel your heart racing or feel extra fatigued. If you have asthma, allergies, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, you may experience wheezing and struggle to get a full breath.

Certain people are more at risk for negative effects, and should take special precautions. For example, young children take in more air per pound of body weight that adults do, so they should not be allowed to be active outside when smoke is in the air. The same goes for pregnant women, as wildfire smoke poses potential health problems for unborn babies. As obvious, if you have heart and lung conditions, avoid going outside, and take extra steps to keep your indoor air clean.

Some people think wood smoke isn’t terribly harmful because it’s natural, but it contains toxic elements including formaldehydes, benzene, acrolein and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. It’s a complex mixture of particulate matter and gases. Short term exposure may aggravate during the hours and days of exposure and increase your risk for respiratory infections. Long term exposure, over a month or longer, can cause chronic bronchitis that affects your ability to breath. Some studies link long term smoke exposure to cancer.

To protect your health during wildfire season, follow these tips:

Stay indoors, only go out for quick, necessary trips and then drive with windows up. If you have a lung or heart issue, consider wearing a particulate mask or respirator. Dust masks and a cloth over your mouth are not enough to keep out the damaging fine particles in wood smoke.

If you can see smoke or smell smoke, don’t exercise outside. If you must do outdoor work, wear a mask and limit your time outdoors.

Keep windows closed and run an ozone-free, HEPA air purifier in your home. Don’t vacuum when smoke is high, as it will stir up fine particles that have found their way into your home. If you run an air conditioner, make sure to close the fresh air intake, and change the filter if it’s dirty.

If you have heart or lung issues, contact your healthcare provider for any specific directions, and call if your symptoms worsen. Limit your exposure to other triggers, including allergens, tobacco smoke and cooking smoke.

If you start having mild symptoms of any kind, take it as a sign to get indoors and away from the smoke. Memorial Regional Health has respiratory therapists and medical providers on hand to help answer any questions you may have about your health during a wildfire. To reach the MRH Medical Clinic, call 970-826-2400.