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Be Prepared for Smoky Days

As much as we want to enjoy every last bit of summertime in the Pacific Northwest, wildfires are starting to kick up, reinforcing concerns about the predicted effects on Western Washington’s air quality. Overlake pulmonologist Radha Agrawal, MD, answers your questions about the impact of smoky air on your health, which populations are most at risk and what you can do to protect yourself.

Q: What health problems can smoke exposure cause?

A: Smoke can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs and can cause dry, burning or watery eyes and a runny nose. It can also cause potentially more serious problems, which may manifest as coughing or wheezing, shortness of breath, or even chest pain or headaches.

Q: Who is especially sensitive to smoke?

A: Although breathing in smoky air is unpleasant for anyone, those with chronic health issues are more sensitive to smoke, as it can aggravate their conditions. This includes people with lung diseases—such as asthma, emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—but also those with heart disease or who have previously had a heart attack or stroke. Breathing fine particulate matter has been shown to increase blood pressure and heart rate, and may also affect how blood clots.

In addition, children under 18, adults over 65, pregnant women and those with a cold or other respiratory infection should be vigilant about limiting exposure to smoke.  

Q: What can you do to protect yourself and your family from outdoor smoke?

A: Consider buying a particulate respirator (labeled N95 or N100). Wearing this can help protect your lungs if you have to go outdoors. However, these are not advised for young children, those with chronic illnesses (as it may worsen their condition and make breathing harder) or people with beards (it won’t seal as well).

Staying indoors doesn’t fully protect you from the smoke, as indoor air quality can also be affected. To keep as much smoke out of your home as possible, close windows and doors to the outside, use fans and air conditioners to keep cool, and run an air purifier to reduce the amount of fine particles from smoke. If you don’t have an air conditioner and it’s too hot to be indoors, try to find a friend or relative to stay with. Other ways to keep down indoor pollution is to avoid smoking cigarettes, burning candles, using gas and vacuuming, unless the vacuum has a HEPA filter.

The Washington State Department of Health also advises keeping a “clean room” in your home for smoky days. The clean room should have enough space for everyone in your family and should be the coolest room in the house with a fan or air conditioner and air purifier.

 

If you or a family member have heart or lung disease, talk to your healthcare provider about what steps you can take to be prepared for wildfires. Seek medical help immediately if symptoms are serious.

 

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