Are Your Lungs More at Risk During Wildfire?
Are You More at Risk During Wildfire?
Summer is upon us, which means higher temperatures and dry heat. While that’s a great combination for people hoping to soak up the rays by the pool, it means that wildfires, including grassland fires and forest fires, are a concern. During a wildfire, people throughout an affected area, and its surroundings, can suffer from the effects of smoke. While wildfire smoke affects us all, there are some who are more susceptible and at greater risk than others.
Wildfire smoke is usually made up of a mixture of carbon monoxide, organic carbon, and tiny particles. Organic carbon usually contains polyaromatic hydrocarbon, which is a known cancer-causing agent. This calamitous combination is even more dangerous for those who work outdoors, those who are under 18 or over 65, or who have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other lung diseases, chronic heart disease, or diabetes. If you fall into one of these categories, you need to make sure to carefully monitor your breathing and exposure to smoke.
Those under 18, especially younger children, are more susceptible to smoke as their young lungs are still developing. If parents suspect their children have inhaled smoky air, bring the child inside and have him or her rest until symptoms subside. Staying inside, with doors, windows, and fireplaces closed, is a parent’s best course of action in order to protect children from further exposure. Parents who may have to be outdoors when smoke is thick should change their clothes once back inside. Children can accidentally inhale particle matter that lingers on their parent’s clothing. If a child exhibits persistent symptoms of smoke inhalation, seek medical attention.
If you suffer from asthma, you may be more affected from higher levels of smoke in the area. The best thing to do, other than avoid being outside, is to work with a physician to develop an asthma action plan specifically designed for wildfires. This is a written, individualized plan that lays out the steps to keep your asthma from getting worse. Follow the plan, take your medications and, if symptoms develop or persist, contact your doctor or head to a nearby hospital.
If you have chronic heart disease, lung disease, or diabetes, ask your doctor whether you need to change your medication when wildfires arise near you. Smoky conditions could trigger a change in medication that will help you better cope with the air quality. If you’ve been using oxygen, do not adjust the levels before you speak with a doctor. Monitor your breathing, and if symptoms like wheezing, shortness of breath, chest heaviness, and dizziness or lightheadedness are not relieved by your normal medications, see a doctor as soon as possible. Because smoke can remain in areas for days after fires have ended, make sure to continue monitoring the situation for a few days after your initial exposure.
For 19 years, the American Lung Association has analyzed data from official air quality monitors to compile the “State of the Air” report. The more you learn about the air you breathe, the more you can protect your health and take steps to make our air cleaner and healthier.
What’s the State of Your Air?
Smoky conditions during and after wildfires are extremely challenging for adults over the age of 65. These adults tend to have decreased lung capacity, which increases the likelihood that air pollution will stress respiratory and circulatory systems. Particulate air pollution like wildfire smoke can compromise immune systems, which in turn can increase susceptibility to bacterial or viral infections. If you are a senior, limit your time outside during the wildfire and for the few days after cleanup. Don’t rely on a mask or bandana to protect you when you are outside—they can sometimes make breathing even harder. Special dust masks referred to as N95 or those with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters are required to filter out dangerous particles from wildfire smoke. But make sure they fit properly. If worn incorrectly, these special masks will not protect you. If you are coughing, have trouble breathing, experience stinging eyes, fast heartbeat, or exhaustion, head out of the area and wait to return until symptoms recede.
Wildfire smoke is hazardous to all of us, no matter if we fall into one of the mentioned categories or not. During a wildfire, stay vigilant and monitor your health and that of your loved ones. If you have asthma, lung or heart conditions, check with your doctor, have medication on hand, and watch for symptoms.
For more information on how wildfire smoke can affect you, call 1-800-LUNGUSA, or visit Lung.org