Nicholas Wysham

Forest fires are the new normal during Washington summers. They fill the air with a disheartening amount of smoke and haze and raise a lot of questions: Should I keep my kids inside? Is it still okay to exercise? Will this cause long-term harm?

These are all reasonable concerns. Wildfires create particulate matter in the air, which can lodge itself in the lower airways. The lungs are designed to deal with a certain burden, but when there are too many particles the lungs have a hard time expelling them. The good news is that, for most healthy people, the impact of a few days or weeks of smoke is likely minimal.

Breathe easy, impact of smoke manageable

The amount of smoke most people breathe in when a nearby forest burns isn’t enough to lead to a chronic condition. Individuals may feel some short-term effects, however. A mild cough is common. Athletes may not have the same exercise capacity. And it’s often best for everyone to adjust how much time they spend outdoors by following the advice of public health experts.

Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website and the Washington Department of Ecology’s Air Monitoring Network show how clean the air is throughout the state and what level of activity they recommend.

Exercise is important to overall health. If pollution hasn’t reached the “red” or “unhealthy” level, and you aren’t feeling any ill effects, go ahead and enjoy your regular activities. If the air quality is rated “unhealthy” it’s probably best to avoid that outdoor jog or long bike ride. Remember, you can always shift to indoor exercises until the smoke clears. It’s important to listen to your body and adjust based on how it’s responding.

Plan more indoor activities

Children may feel the effects of smoke before adults do, so be sure to watch them and see how they are responding. When the air quality is questionable, look for indoor activities rather than plan a whole day outside. Reactive airway disease is common in children under age 8. To prevent a flare-up, and to potentially reduce the possibility of the disease progressing into an asthma diagnosis, it’s better to keep kids with this health issue inside.

Adults with underlying respiratory conditions including COPD and asthma should also stay inside when the air quality is poor. Smoke particles can irritate the airways, causing wheezing and excess mucus.

Putting a new air filter in the furnace, running an air purifier, setting the air conditioning to recirculate, and using a HEPA filter (which can trap more airborne particles), can help keep indoor air quality at its best when smoke is bad.

Get concerns checked out

Sometimes a stretch of smoky days can bring undiagnosed lung conditions to light or prompt patients to get more help controlling their asthma or COPD. If you have consistent respiratory problems, feel significantly impaired, or have to take days off work when it’s smoky, you should be formally evaluated.

While the Northwest has generally good air quality, people are often lulled into thinking it’s better than it is. Vehicles create pollution that can get trapped on the valley floor due to our air patterns. Mold can cause indoor air issues in winter. Receiving an accurate diagnosis and getting help managing your condition can help you feel better throughout the year—not just when it’s smoky.

If you have concerns about your respiratory health, talk to your primary care provider and ask for a referral. Always seek immediate medical attention for severe breathing issues.

Dr. Nicholas Wysham is a pulmonologist practicing at Vancouver Clinic. He focuses on caring for patients with advanced lung disease with an emphasis on improving quality of life.

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