WESTERN MONTANA — It’s been a couple of years since this part of Montana experienced the type of smoke that is presently cloaking the area. It is from the mega fires in California, Oregon and Washington, and it negatively impacts the health of people.
Smoke contains soot or particle matter, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. Smoke can contain many different other chemicals as well. The type and amount of chemicals and particles found in smoke varies depending on what is burning, how much oxygen is available, and what temperature the fire is burning at. Depending on what causes the fire, smoke can contain chemicals such as benzene, toluene, styrene, aldehydes, acid gases, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and metal and dioxins. Smoke inhalation can cause serious health issues depending on how long the person is exposed.
What is Wildfire Smoke and Can it Make Me Sick?
Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick. Even someone who is healthy can get sick if there is enough smoke in the air. Breathing in smoke can have immediate health effects, including:
Trouble breathing normally
A scratchy throat
Wheezing and shortness of breath
An asthma attack
Older adults, pregnant women, children, and people with preexisting respiratory and heart conditions may be more likely to get sick if they breathe in wildfire smoke.
Tips for Protecting Yourself from Breathing Wildfire Smoke
If possible, limit your exposure to smoke.
Tips to help you protect your health:
Pay attention to local air quality reports. When a wildfire occurs in your area, watch for news or health warnings about smoke. Pay attention to public health messages and take extra safety measures such as avoiding spending time outdoors.
Pay attention to visibility guides if they are available. Although not every community measures the amounts of particles in the air, some communities in the western United States have guidelines to help people estimate air quality based on how far they can see.
If you are told to stay indoors, stay indoors and keep your indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed unless it is very hot outside. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Seek shelter elsewhere if you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed.
Use an air filter. Use a freestanding indoor air filter with particle removal to help protect people with heart disease, asthma or other respiratory conditions and the elderly and children from the effects of wildfire smoke. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on filter replacement and where to place the device.
Do not add to indoor pollution. When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles and fireplaces. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke tobacco or other products, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
Follow your doctor’s advice about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection.
Avoid smoke exposure during outdoor recreation. Wildfires and prescribed burns—fires that are set on purpose to manage land—can create smoky conditions. Before you travel to a park or forest, check to see if any wildfires are happening or if any prescribed burns are planned.
Why wildfire smoke makes you sick
Wildfire smoke includes particles from burning vegetation and building materials mixed with gases. If your eyes feel like they’re stinging, smoke exposure could also be inflicting other damage. Particles can be getting into your respiratory system.
Exposure can cause chest pain, a fast heartbeat or wheezing or bring on an asthma attack. Besides coughing and trouble breathing, many people experience symptoms similar to a sinus infection, such as headaches, sore throat, a runny nose and even tiredness, according to the CDC.
Wildfire smoke can be especially harmful to the elderly, pregnant women, children and those with chronic heart and lung diseases. Because children breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults and their airways are still developing, they may experience more severe symptoms.
Those with asthma or lung disease should consult their doctors about navigating situations like this. Some people may even experience illnesses like bronchitis due to the fine particles, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Staying healthy when it’s smoky
If you see a haze, smell smoke or know of a wildfire in your area or a place you plan to visit, check the Air Quality Index to see whether you need to limit your time outdoors.
When advised to stay inside, keep your windows and doors closed. It’s OK to keep the air conditioner running, but make sure the filter is clean, and close the fresh-air intake to prevent smoke from entering, according to the CDC.
It’s also important to keep indoor air clean by not burning candles, using the fireplace or gas stoves, or smoking. Running a vacuum can also keep particles circulating in the air.
Dust masks actually trap large particles and don’t protect your lungs from smoke inhalation, but a mask that uses a filtering respirator can offer some protection. The CDC also has tips for how effective different types of masks can be, depending on your exposure.
Even if the air outside or in your home looks clear, it may not be free of harmful microscopic particles, especially if the wildfires and smoke persist for weeks.
Pediatric pulmonologists at Children’s Hospital Colorado’s Breathing Institute also recommend changing your clothes if you’ve been outside, rinsing out red, irritated eyes and drinking fluids to keep from being dehydrated. Parents should seek emergency care for their children if they experience real difficulty breathing or a change in their level of consciousness.
There is a low risk of long-term effects of wildfire smoke exposure for healthy individuals.