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Wildfire smoke: When to worry and when to relax

Nicholas Wysham, MD

Wildfires are increasing throughout the West. Big burns—and more of them—are starting earlier than ever. The result is more hazy, smoky summer days for everyone. But what impact is all of this having on our health? Vancouver Clinic Pulmonologist Nicholas Wysham, MD explains.

Q: Why is smoke exposure a concern?

Dr. Wysham: There’s particulate matter in wildfire smoke that will lodge itself in the lower airways. Our lungs are designed to deal with a certain burden, but as the particulate matter increases, it can overwhelm the lungs’ ability to take care of it. People who live near highways tend to have poorer heart and lung health due to the dust. We know that what’s in the air makes a difference.

Q: So what is the impact of breathing all this in?

Dr. Wysham: We’re not typically exposed to enough wildfire smoke in isolation for us to develop chronic health conditions—that’s the good news. However, it can impact how we feel in the short term. It’s not uncommon for people to develop a cough, and athletes might not be able to work out as hard, for example. The biggest impact is on those with lung conditions like COPD and asthma. Smoke irritates the airways, causing bronchospasms (wheezing and narrowing of airways) and poor mucus clearance. [Learn about managing COPD in poor air quality.]

Q: What can people do to stay healthy when the air is poor?

Dr. Wysham: I advise everyone to follow the guidance that comes from public health: Limit outdoor air exposure, consider running an air conditioner or air filtration system, and move exercise indoors. Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website and the Washington Department of Ecology’s Air Monitoring Network provide information on the severity of the pollution and recommendations on what to do based on your overall health. It’s also important to watch how your body is responding to the conditions and adjust your activities accordingly. This applies to kids, too. Children can often feel the effects of smoke earlier. Parents of kids diagnosed with reactive airway disease should strive to keep their kids inside to prevent a flare-up and to potentially reduce the possibility of the disease progressing into an asthma diagnosis

Q: Does that mean I should skip my workout?

Dr. Wysham: If you notice that you’re breathing worse, avoid it. Certainly avoid that outdoor jog or long bike ride when air quality is “red” or “unhealthy.” But exercise is good for you, too. If you aren’t noticing excess respiratory symptoms, it’s important to engage in regular activities.

Q: If the smoke is really bothering me, should I see a doctor?

Dr. Wysham: It’s not normal to have to take days off work or feel significantly impaired. If that happens, you should be evaluated. It might be that you have an undiagnosed lung condition. If you have already been diagnosed with a lung condition and are having trouble, it could be that you need more medical support and treatment. Of course, anyone experiencing severe breathing issues should head to the emergency room.