Article Submitted by Autumn Moore, Cardiopulmonary Manager and Respiratory Therapist, Cardiopulmonary Department, San Luis Valley Health, Alamosa, Colorado
Lung Health During Forest Fires
Wildfires often cast off ash and other irritants into the air which may cause breathing problems for asthmatics of all ages, COPD, and anyone with underlying respiratory problems. Wildfire smoke may last for days, even months in the air because of the small particulate matter in the smoke. Even if the skies look clear, they can still be full of irritants that can trigger an asthma attack or a COPD exacerbation.
For someone without lung problems, wood smoke can:
• Irritate the eyes, throat and sinus
• Increase the risk of heart attacks
• Trigger headaches and allergies
• Reduce lung function, especially in children
For someone with lung disease, wood smoke can cause all the above but much sooner and it can:
• Trigger asthma attack
• Worsen COPD or Pneumonia
*Worsening meaning increased cough, chest discomfort, wheeze, and shortness of breath
What can you do to PREVENT problems now that forest fires are in our area:
• Remain indoors as much as possible
• Keep doors, windows closed and fireplace dampers closed
• Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting so outside air will not be moved inside.
• Refrain from exercising outside
• Take extra precautions with children, their systems are still growing and therefore they breathe in more air than adults do
• Keep your windows and vents closed on your car while driving and use the air conditioner in the recirculate setting.
• If you have lung disease, make sure you take your rescue inhaler if you need it. If you notice that you are being triggered just by going outside for a few moments, use your rescue inhaler prior to going outside.
• If you have an asthma action plan with your physician, make sure you follow it and if you do not have one, get one!
• Make sure all your medications are up-to-date and filled. Everyone with asthma and COPD should have a fast-acting inhaler with them at all times.
When to get HELP!
• If breathing symptoms are not relieved by usual medications, seek medical attention. Symptoms to watch for include: increased wheeze, cough, shortness of breath and chest heaviness.
• If you or someone you love experiences an asthma or COPD emergency, CALL 911 and go to the nearest emergency room right away. Do not drive yourself. Take your fast-acting inhaler as necessary on the way to the hospital or while waiting for the ambulance.
Resources- American Lung Association (July 2, 2008) Forest Fires and Respiratory Health Fact Sheet;
The United States Environmental Protection Agency (July 2, 2008) How Smoke from fires can affect your health