7 Ways to Protect Your Health from Wildfire Smoke


The summer of 2017 is turning out to be quite the smoky affair.

With a record snowfall last winter — and the resulting vigorous growth of vegetation that serves as fire fuel — northern Nevada and northeastern California have felt like a giant tinder box waiting for a spark. Unfortunately, there have been plenty of sparks. The fire tracker website InciWeb listed 16 active fires on Aug. 7, 2017.

The Trouble with Fire

In addition to structure and habitat destruction, wildfires produce smoke that can reach far beyond the communities where the burn is occurring. Wildfire smoke is a mixture of gas and fine particles from the burning trees and plants. Wildfire smoke can cause the following physical problems: watery or dry eyes, persistent coughing, wheezing, scratchy throat or irritated sinuses, headaches, shortness of breath, asthma attacks or lung irritation, irregular heartbeat, chest pain or fatigue. It can also worsen chronic heart and lung disease.

The purity of the air is so important, the government created an index to measure it. The Air Quality Index (AQI) is a number used by government agencies to let the public know the air’s pollution level. In regions like northern Nevada, the AQI is often part of the weather report we get every morning.

The higher the AQI, the more risk there is to people in the affected area. The most vulnerable are those who already have heart or lung disease (including asthma), older folks and children. As the AQI increases, more sectors of the population are affected. At levels above 200, the air poses a hazard for everyone.

RELATED: Is it allergies or a sinus infection? Understanding the differences.

So what is the best way to cope with daily life in a fire region to ensure your health? Our team offers seven tips for decreasing your risk from wildfire smoke.

1. Use the Air Quality Index as your guide

Chart courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency.

In fire-prone regions, the AQI is often part of the weather report we get every morning. Use this report to determine how the wildfire could be affecting the health of you and your loved ones every day during fire season.

2. Stay indoors and keep indoor air clean

If you’re advised to stay indoors, work to keep the air inside as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed. Use fans and indoor air filters. Run an air conditioner, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. If you don’t have an air conditioner and it’s too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek shelter in a designated evacuation and cooling center.

RELATED: When to pay attention to a sore throat.

3. Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution

Burning candles, fireplaces or gas stoves can increase indoor pollution. Vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home, contributing to indoor pollution. Smoking also puts even more pollution into the air.

4. Remove smoky attire

If you are outdoors in the smoke and your clothes become smoky, remove them, shower and put on clean clothes. Wash your smoky clothes as soon as possible, to avoid having them pass the smell onto other things.

5. Follow your doctor’s advice

If you are in an at-risk group due to respiratory or health challenges, discuss your air pollution action plan with your physician. If the smoke is causing you to have breathing problems, seek a cleaner environment and contact your doctor for advice if your symptoms worsen.

6. Do not rely on dust masks for protection

The dust masks found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust, and will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke.

7. Get out of a smoky environment

Even if you are not facing a mandatory evacuation, if the air has become so smoky that you are experiencing discomfort or health issues, move to a less smoky area if you are able. That may mean driving to a town upwind for a time.

Even if you try your best to avoid wildfire smoke, sometimes it cannot be avoided. If you experience health problems, see your physician for treatment. The experts at Sierra Nevada, Ear, Nose & Throat are available to help you with ear, nose or throat challenges, whether they are a result of wildfire smoke or some other cause. Call 775.883.7666 for an appointment.


Air Now
American Lung Association

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