In 2022, Oregon had a total of 2,011 large wildfires that burned at least 456,000 acres. While the number of fires increases or decreases each year, experts predict that wildfires and smoke will continue to affect our forests and communities for years to come.
The effects of long-term exposure to wildfire smoke are not yet known. However, researchers do know that the smoke contains tiny pieces of burnt plant material and chemicals that can be harmful to health. The most dangerous particles contained within smoke are those that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller.
Particles in Smoke Matter
There’s an important reason why particle size matters, noted Vanessa Mizak, FNP, of Samaritan Medical Group Pulmonology – Corvallis.
“Our bodies have defenses, like nose hairs, that prevent particles larger than 2.5 micrometers from entering our lungs when we breathe, but smaller particles can slip through those defenses and end up settling in our lungs or the bloodstream,” Mizak explained.
How small is 2.5 micrometers? One strand of average human hair is about 70 micrometers in diameter, making one hair 30 times larger than the largest fine particle. Most of these dangerous particles cannot even be seen by the human eye.
“These particles can affect the body in a variety of ways, such as respiratory irritation and shortness of breath, or it can worsen conditions like asthma, COPD and heart disease,” Mizak said. “As much as possible, limit your exposure to wildfire smoke.”
Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke
Immediate health effects of inhaling wildfire smoke can include:
- Trouble breathing normally.
- Stinging eyes.
- Scratchy throat.
- Irritated sinuses.
- Wheezing and shortness of breath.
- Chest pain.
- Asthma attack.
- Rapid heartbeat.
“People who have preexisting lung or heart issues can be especially vulnerable to inhaling smoke, as are older adults, pregnant people and young children,” Mizak noted. “Prolonged exposure can worsen lung and heart conditions.”
Know Your Local Air Quality
The quality of the air we breathe isn’t something that most of us ever think about, until we notice a change.
“Particularly when wildfire smoke is in the air, it’s important to know what the air quality index is for your area. The numbers will indicate whether you need to minimize your time outside,” explained Mizak.
Check the U.S. Air Quality Index for your area code and know what the numbers mean. The weather app on your cell phone, or your local news source may also tell you what the local index is.
When the AQI is between 101 and 150, the outdoor air is unhealthy to breathe for people in sensitive groups. When the index is over 151, the outdoor air is unhealthy for everyone, regardless of individual health, and it is best to stay indoors.
Protect Yourself From Smoke
- Minimize outdoor activities. If you notice that your breathing feels different, stop what you’re doing and go inside. If you need to exercise, do it indoors.
- When indoors, keep windows and doors shut unless it is too hot to do so. Use fans, and if you have air conditioning, set it to recirculate and keep the fresh air intake closed.
- Use an air purifier inside. Especially for sensitive groups with preexisting conditions, use a freestanding indoor air purifier system that filters out particles from the indoor air you breathe. The Environmental Protection Agency has some useful tips on what to look for in air-cleaning units and filters.
- Avoid adding pollution to indoor air. Do not use scented candles or other products. Avoid smoking inside. Do not use a fireplace or wood- or pellet-burning stove. Avoid using your vacuum as it stirs up dust particles.
- Mask up, if needed. An N95 mask will offer some protection from small particles in the air. But a household dust mask will not prevent smoke from getting into your lungs.
Follow Medical Advice
Pay attention to how your body feels and if your breathing feels different to you.
“If you already have a lung condition or heart disease, follow your doctor’s recommendations in regard to your medications and respiratory management plan. If your conditions worsen, call your doctor’s office for additional advice,” said Mizak.