How to minimize the health risks of wildfire smoke

As smoke from Canadian wildfires sweeps down the East Coast, millions of people in the US are under air quality alerts. Here's what doctors want everyone to know about avoiding health problems such as trouble breathing, burning eyes, dizziness, headache or even nausea.

How to minimize the health risks of wildfire smoke


Smoke from wildfires raging in Canada is sweeping down the East Coast, causing air quality alerts for millions of Americans. Schools in New York, Washington and other states have cancelled outdoor activities and the visibility is poor. Airports and ground stops are also affected.

Smoke can cause other health issues such as dizziness, headaches, nausea, or difficulty breathing. Doctors advise people with symptoms that are becoming worse to seek medical attention.

Here are some tips to stay healthy and avoid problems when there is a thick layer of smoke in the air.

Why is it difficult to breathe when wildfire smoke is present?

It's like tiny, very small particulates that go deep into the lungs. It is not an allergy; it is an irritant. An irritant is something that can cause anyone to cough and feel itchiness in their throat,' explained Dr. Shilpa Patel, medical director at Children's National IMPACT DC Asthma Clinic, Washington. If you look at Air Quality Index it is in the Purple Zone, which I do not see in our area very often.

It's a collection of measurements. It's not only particulate matter but also multiple inputs from the [US Environmental Protection Agency] which determine what type of pollution is currently in the air. Patel explained that uses the same color codes as meteorologists when they discuss green, yellow orange, red and purple.

Dr. Peter DeCarlo is an associate professor at the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering of Johns Hopkins University. He says that the website should become a regular visit for all.

He said: 'I'd plug in to your computer or phone and check it just like people do when they get weather forecasts from their smart speakers or phones.' This is a website that is managed by federal agencies and has the most current information. It includes both measurements and forecasts of air quality. It is a great tool to use for people who want to know where they are affected and what the weather will be tomorrow or the next day.

When air quality is low, who is at risk of health problems?

This type of air pollution, which is very poor in the Northeast, can cause problems to people with asthma and allergies almost instantly if they are outside for any length of time. Dr. Aida capo, a New Jersey pulmonologist at Hackensack Meridian palisades medical center, said.

This air is especially dangerous for the very young, elderly people and pregnant women. It is therefore recommended that these people do not spend time outdoors. No playing or exercising outdoors. It is advised that if you must exercise outdoors on a day such as today, you should do so far away from traffic and where pollution will not be an issue. She said, "because right now it's really bad."

It could be a problem if you have respiratory issues and wear a long Covid.

"Clearly, any further insult to their lung will be detrimental to the health of their patients." They need to be cautious as with any chronic condition. Even if you are healthy, these particulates can cause irritation to your lungs.

Why does poor air quality affect children and the elderly so much?

Patel explained that it has to do the ability to expel. It's difficult to expel whatever's in your lungs. Your muscles will be weaker as you age. It's the exact same with a viral infection: you can't clear mucus so easily. These problems can be exacerbated by chronic illnesses that are more common in older people.

Children have smaller airways. Even a small amount of mucus or inflammation in their airways can reduce the space they have and affect their ability to breath.

Rosenberg stated that the small particles can be a problem even for young adults because their lungs are not fully developed. These particles are particularly harmful to children and young adults because their lungs will continue to develop and grow until they reach their 20s.

Can people be protected from harm when they are outside?

We do have some protection. The nasal hairs on our noses can shield us from many of these particles. Capo explained that the small particles are not enough.

The recommendation is to not go outside. However, if you do want to wear a face mask, then wear it. But make sure that the mask is N95 and not a surgical one. The surgical mask is not enough to prevent these particles from entering your airways. An N95 mask will help reduce the amount of small particles that enter your airways if you are going to be outside for a long time. But it must be worn properly, and wearing an N95 for a long time is difficult.

Patel recommends "reducing strenuous physical activities that require deep breathing." If you must walk, I would advise that you do so, but not to run or jog.

She added, 'Be prudent in your decision to go outside.' Even if it does not bother you now, it may later. These small particles can get deep into the airways and cause a delayed response.

Rosenberg says that 'these particles are irritating to the upper airway, nose, throat, and eyes. If you feel this, then it is an alarm sign. Our neurological sensors can be sensitive enough to act as an alarm if you are breathing in something potentially harmful. You should therefore heed the warning and head inside.

Pet owners will have to take their pets outside. However, experts recommend minimizing the time and distance traveled.

DeCarlo advised: 'Pets need to be outside so they can use their toilets, but you shouldn't run with them and limit their time outdoors. If you can, walk more slowly to reduce your breathing. This can help.

What should people who have asthma, allergies or heart conditions do if they must go outside?

Capo advised that people with asthma should use their rescue inhaler at least 15 minutes prior to going out into such air quality. If you suffer from any illness, whether it is asthma, allergies or cardiovascular, and are being treated by a doctor, using your medications can help you reduce your risk of getting worse.

Patel advises asthmatics to 'use their rescue inhaler which is typically albuterol and ensure you are using it correctly'. An AeroChamber is a plastic tube that has a mouthpiece and increases the effectiveness of the medicine and controls how the medicine gets delivered into the lungs' small airways. "Starting early and not waiting until symptoms worsen - that's probably the first sign or coughing or irritation. Just go ahead and use it." It's not harmful to start your inhaler. If that doesn't help, contact your primary care provider for additional treatment if your child or you is having trouble breathing.

What improves indoor air quality?

Capo advised that the best way to reduce air pollution is to turn on your air conditioners and air filters.

Indoor air pollution is usually half or less of what you find outside, in terms of particles. This is the issue we are concerned about. He said that this all disappears as soon as your windows and door are opened and you let in free-flowing fresh air. It's time for people who bought HEPA air filters during Covid to use them again in the indoor areas where they are located to minimize their exposure to outdoor pollution.

Avoid vacuuming because you will stir up the dust, you will be more active if you throw a vacuum around and you are going to breathe more. DeCarlo advised that vacuuming is something to avoid.

Allergy medicine can help.

It's not like allergies. Patel explained that it's an irritation, even though some people may be allergic. It could be helpful even though it is not the same mechanism. It will dry you out, and clear your sinuses. It won't help as much with the anti-itching, I believe. If someone is allergic to wildfire smoke then they should use it.

Old advice like drinking lots of water, eating peppermints, or drinking strong coffee can help.

Drinking water has always been beneficial. Capo stated that he would not say no, but that it wouldn't prevent the symptoms of being exposed to poor air quality.

Smoke from wildfires and air quality are they a health concern in the long term?

This week we have a few days with poor air quality. DeCarlo stated that it's summer break for many parents and we should take this opportunity to slow down a bit until the air quality improves.

We expect that wildfires will become more common in a warmer climate, and this is what we are experiencing. Wildfires are most commonly seen in the Western US, and the Mountain West. This type of event is less common on the East Coast. Our forests are wetter, and they don't burn nearly as much. But with climate change in the future, this unique experience may become more common.