Forest fires can impair breathing; take these steps to lessen lung damage.

In recent years, the world has seen a rising number of wildfires. Recently much of North America suffered the impact of forest fires burning across Canada. And it wasn’t just most Canadians breathing heavy after inhaling it. Heavy wildfire smoke hovered over major American cities along the east coast and the midwest.

In fact, CBS News pinpointed a more precise number of burning fires in that nation–510.

These catastrophic events wreak havoc on the local environment and affect areas far removed from the flames. Wildfire smoke, a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and plant material, can pose serious health risks to people and pets, even hundreds of miles away from the fire. Today we’ll discuss how to protect yourself, your family, and your pets from this increasingly common environmental hazard.

Understanding the Risks of Wildfire Smoke

Never underestimate the hazardous nature of wildfire smoke. Why?

Smoke from wildfires contains a mixture of gases and microscopic particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The most significant health threat from wildfire smoke comes from fine particles, also known as particulate matter. These tiny particles, often around 2.5 micrometers or smaller, can penetrate deep into our lungs, causing many health problems.

These minuscule particles in the smoke can bypass the body’s natural defense mechanisms in the nose and throat and settle into the lungs while breathing. Once there, they can trigger a host of reactions. Short-term exposure to these particles can result in coughing, shortness of breath, and irritation in the eyes, nose, and throat. These symptoms may seem mild. However, they can profoundly affect a person’s quality of life, causing discomfort and anxiety.

However, the real danger lies in the long-term and repeated exposure to these particles. Prolonged exposure may lead to more severe conditions such as bronchitis, an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes. In addition, it can also exacerbate pre-existing conditions like asthma, COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), and other respiratory diseases. For those with such conditions, exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to more frequent and severe attacks and prolonged recovery.


Populations at Particular Risk During Wildfire Smoke

Some populations are especially susceptible to the adverse effects of wildfire smoke. Older adults are at greater risk because they are more likely to have underlying heart or lung diseases, which can worsen due to smoke inhalation. Pregnancy is another reason to becautious as well. That’s because harmful particles from the smoke can affect their health and the development of their unborn child. The unborn baby’s lungs, heart, and nervous system are still developing. As a result, their lungs may be particularly sensitive to the harmful effects of smoke.

Children and infants are another vulnerable group. Their lungs and airways are still developing, and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. That means they inhale more harmful particles relative to their size, putting their developing lungs at greater risk. Plus, children are more likely to be active outdoors, which can lead to increased exposure.

Lastly, individuals with pre-existing health conditions or comorbidities, especially heart or lung diseases, must be extra careful. The inflammation caused by the smoke can strain the heart. Thus, it can even lead to heart attacks or other serious cardiac events. For those with lung diseases, the smoke can lead to a significant decline in their lung function.

Six Ways to Lessen the Harm of Wildfire Smoke

By understanding these risks, we can each equip ourselves to mitigate the potential harm caused by wildfire smoke. Awareness is the first step towards protection, and knowing who is most at risk and why can help implement the best preventive measures.

1. Stay Informed About Air Quality and Its Impact on Breathing

Monitor local news and public health alerts regularly. Websites like AirNow, an initiative by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), provide information on the Air Quality Index (AQI), which indicates the levels of pollutants in the air. A higher AQI indicates higher pollution levels, which can harm health. Also, keep emergency contact numbers and evacuation plans handy if the situation worsens or a nearby forest fire arrives at your doorstep.


2. Stay Indoors When Possible

When the AQI is high, stay indoors as much as possible. It would be best if you also kept the doors and windows closed. Closing up your home can significantly reduce the amount of indoor air pollution. When you need to go outside, try to do so when the air quality improves.

3. Improve Indoor Air Quality

Using air purifiers with HEPA filters can help reduce the particle levels indoors. These devices force air through a fine mesh that traps harmful particles such as pollen, pet dander, dust mites, and smoke. Avoid activities that can increase indoor pollution, like burning candles, using gas stoves, or smoking.

4. Use the Right Mask (N95 or P100)

Regular cloth and surgical masks do not offer protection against wildfire smoke. Respirator masks, like N95 or P100, filter out particles in the air and can help protect the lungs. However, these masks must fit properly to be effective and may not fit children or people with facial hair. They can also make breathing more challenging. Therefore, lung disease patients should consult their healthcare provider before using these masks.

5. Stay Hydrated and Maintain a Healthy Diet

Drinking plenty of fluids can help soothe a throat irritated by smoke. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can boost the immune system and help the body fight any potential harm from breathing in smoke.

6. Protecting Your Pets 

Pets are also vulnerable to wildfire smoke. Keep them indoors when the AQI is high. If they need to go outside, limit their physical activities. Like humans, animals can also benefit from air purifiers in the home. Regular vet check-ups can help detect any potential breathing issues caused by smoke inhalation.


Final Thoughts: Take Precautions to Protect Your Family From Wildfire Smoke

While wildfires may be a reality, there are effective ways to protect ourselves and our loved ones from their harmful effects. Remember, awareness is the first step toward protection. We can navigate these challenging times with resilience and care by staying informed and proactive.

Always consult a healthcare professional if you or a family member is experiencing severe symptoms from wildfire smoke exposure. Stay safe!