Anxious about wildfire smoke? UW Medicine shares tips to help you breathe easier

Video courtesy of UW Medicine

SEATTLE, Wash. — Like it or not, we are in for a long wildfire season, and that means you need to be prepared to deal with smoke blowing in from across the West Coast.

University of Washington School of Medicine says you should have a plan for when it starts getting smoky outside—that means knowing where you can get clean air, smoke-proofing your doors and windows and checking with your doctor to make sure you are not having any health complications.

“It’s very common for the irritating gases and the particulates in smoke to cause some health effects in even normal people, and that could be burning or itchy eyes, sore throat, headaches, a little bit of nausea,” said UW Medicine Pulmonologist Dr. Cora Sack, “and that should really be a sign to stop what you’re doing and get in clean air.”

Sack said people most susceptible to health effects from smoke are people over age 65, pregnant women, children and people with lung or heart conditions.

“There are various things you can do to help improve the air quality in your home. That includes things like closing windows and doors. If you have central air conditioning, putting your air on recirculate and making sure you have a good quality filter, that will really take out those particles from the air,” said Sack. “If you don’t have central air, you can get a portable air filter. And I really recommend a HEPA filter that mechanically removes particles and doesn’t generate ozone or other harmful byproducts. And then finally, you can make your own filter by using a box fan and putting a filter on top of it.”

While you may be used to wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sack notes the common cloth masks you might have worn do not filter out the fine particles from wildfire smoke.

Instead, you can wear a properly-fitted N95 mask, which can filter out those smoke particles, though Sack says it needs a tight seal to be effective.

“As anyone who’s lived in the Pacific Northwest over the past few years has experienced firsthand, that wildfire seasons have become more extreme and are lasting longer. And most of the research to date has really focused on what are the short-term effects of breathing smoke,” said Sack. “What we don’t know yet is what are the health effects from these longer periods of smoke that accumulate over time.”

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