Smoke may smell good, but it's not good for you
While not everyone has the same sensitivity to wildfire smoke, it’s still a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it. And when smoke is heavy, such as can occur in close proximity to a wildfire, it’s bad for everyone.
Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.
Some people are more at risk
It's especially important for you to pay attention to local air quality reports during a fire if you are
a person with heart or lung disease, such as heart failure, angina, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma.
an older adult, which makes you more likely to have heart or lung disease than younger people.
caring for children, including teenagers, because their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults, they're more likely to be active outdoors, and they’re more likely to have asthma.
a person with diabetes, because you are more likely to have underlying cardiovascular disease.
a pregnant woman, because there could be potential health effects for both you and the developing fetus.
How to tell if smoke is affecting you
High concentrations of smoke can trigger a range of symptoms.
Anyone may experience burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
If you have heart or lung disease, smoke may make your symptoms worse
People with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, or fatigue.
People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.
It's important to limit your exposure to smoke - especially if you are at increased risk for particle-related effects. Here are some steps you can take to protect your health:
Prepare for fire season if you live in a fire-prone area
If you have heart, vascular or lung disease, including asthma, talk with your health care provider before fire season to make plans. Discuss when to leave the area, how much medicine to have on hand, and your asthma action plan if you have asthma.
Have a several-day supply of nonperishable foods that do not require cooking. Cooking - especially frying and broiling - can add to indoor pollution levels. If you have to cook, use an air purifier with HEPA filters to absorb smoke and smell, keep your indoor air fresh.
Consider buying an air cleaner. Some room air cleaners can help reduce particle levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your rooms as specified by the manufacturer. If you choose to buy an air cleaner, don't wait until there's a fire - make that decision beforehand.
Note: Don't use an air cleaner that generates ozone. That just puts more pollution in your home.
Have a supply of N-95 or P-100 masks on hand, and learn how to use them correctly. They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online.
During a fire
Pay attention to local air quality reports. As smoke gets worse, the concentration of particles in the air increases - and so should the steps you take to protect yourself. Air quality reports are available through local news media, your local air agency or airnow.gov.
Use common sense to guide your activities. Even if you don’t have a monitor in your area, if it looks or smells smoky outside, it's probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run. And it's probably not a good time for children - especially children with asthma - to be vigorously active outdoors, or active outdoors for prolonged periods of time. If you are active outdoors, pay attention to symptoms. Symptoms are an indication that you need to reduce exposure.
Dust masks aren't enough! Paper "dust" masks or surgical masks will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in wildfire smoke. Scarves or bandanas (wet or dry) won’t help, either. Particulate masks known as N-95 or P-100 respirators will help, but they must fit well and be used correctly. They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online.
If you are advised to stay indoors, take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep your windows and doors closed - unless it's extremely hot outside. Run your air conditioner and air purifiers. Medical HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filters and activated carbon filters can prevent bringing additional smoke inside. Open windows to air out the house when air quality improves.
Note: If you don't have an air conditioner, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. In these cases, seek alternative shelters, such as with relatives or a cleaner air shelter.
If you have cardiovascular disease, follow your healthcare provider’s directions and call if your symptoms worsen. If you think you are having a heart attack or stroke, dial 9-1-1.
Stay safe stay healthy