Millions of people across the US are on air quality alerts as smoke from Canadian bushfires wafts along the East Coast. Some schools in New York and Washington are canceling outdoor activities and airports are experiencing delays or ground stops due to poor visibility.
Smoking can also cause health problems such as breathing difficulties, burning eyes, dizziness, headaches or nausea. Doctors say people whose symptoms are getting worse should get medical attention.
Here’s what they want everyone to know about staying healthy and avoiding problems when the air is thick with smoke.
Why does smoke from wildfires make it so hard to breathe?
This is like a tiny, tiny particulate that gets deep into your airways. It is not an allergen; it is an irritant. And so an irritant can hit anyone’s lungs and make you start coughing and feel that itchy throat, said Dr. Shilpa Patel, medical director of Children’s National IMPACT DC Asthma Clinic in Washington. If you look at the air quality index, it’s in the purple zone, which I don’t see that often in the purple zone in our area.
What is the air quality index and what does it tell us?
It is a conglomerate of measurements. So it’s not just particulate, it has multiple inputs emitted by the [US Environmental Protection Agency] which determines what kind of pollution is in the air right now. AirNow.gov is the same thing meteorologists use when they talk about green, yellow, orange, red, purple color codes, Patel said.
Dr. Peter DeCarlo, an associate professor in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Environmental Health and Engineering, says the website should be a regular stop for everyone.
I would connect AirNow.gov to your phone or computer and control how people get the weather forecast on their phones or from their smart speakers, he said. This is a site maintained by federal agencies with the most up-to-date information, both from measurements and forecasts, about air quality and what to expect. So just plugging it in as a tool for people to find out where places are interested and what they can expect tomorrow and the next day works really well.
Who is most vulnerable to health problems when air quality is poor?
This kind of air quality, which is really poor right here in the Northeast, almost immediately causes problems for people with asthma or allergies if they stay outside for any length of time, said Dr. Aida Capo. Pulmonologist at Hackensack Meridian Palisades Medical. Center in New Jersey.
This air is especially dangerous for the very young, the elderly and pregnant women. Hence it is recommended that they do not spend time outdoors. Absolutely forbidden to play outdoors and do not exercise outdoors. If you feel so inclined to exercise outdoors on a day like today, you’ll want to be away from traffic, where there’s no further pollution. Because right now, it’s really bad, he said.
This could also be a problem for people with long Covid who have respiratory problems.
Clearly, any further insult to their lungs will be detrimental to their health. As with any kind of chronic condition, they need to take precautions, said Dr. David Rosenberg, a lung disease specialist at UH Ahuja Medical Center in Cleveland, where residents are also seeing poor air quality conditions due to smoke from the wildfires. Probably though, with all these particulates at these levels, even if you’re healthy, it has the potential to irritate your lungs and cause problems for everyone, no question.
Why is bad air quality so hard on children and the elderly?
It has to do with the ability to expectorate, Patel said. So it’s hard to get everything in your lungs out. When you’re really young or old, your muscles are weaker, so the older and younger just have less strength. With a viral illness, it’s the same thing: You’re not able to clear your mucus easily. And older people have far more chronic conditions that can exacerbate these problems.
Also with children, they have smaller airways, so even a little inflammation or mucus in the airways reduces the little space they have and this can affect their ability to breathe.
Rosenberg said the small particles can also be a problem for young adults, likely because their lungs haven’t fully developed. Lungs continue to grow and develop into their 20s, so if they have this added insult to their breathing, these particles can be particularly harmful to children and young adults as well.
Is there a way to protect people while they are out?
We have some natural protection. Our nose hairs can protect us from many of these particles. But these are really small particles from the fires, so it’s not enough, Capo said.
The recommendation is not to be outside, but if you want to wear a mask to help, by all means wear one and then make sure it’s an N95, not a surgical mask. A surgical mask will not protect you from these particles entering the airways, because it is not enough. If you have to be outdoors for an extended period of time, an N95 will reduce some of these small particles in your airways, but they have to be worn appropriately, and it’s difficult to wear an N95 for an extended period of time, she said. .
Patel recommends cutting back on strenuous physical activity that requires deep breathing. If you have to walk, walk, but I wouldn’t go jogging or running.
Be conservative about your decision to be out, she added. And keep in mind that even if you date and it doesn’t bother you, it could affect you later. Because these are small particulates, so they get deep into your airways and the response may be a bit delayed.
According to Rosenberg, these particulates are particularly irritating to the upper airways, nose or throat, and eyes, so if you feel anything like this, it’s a warning sign. We have sensitive neurological sensors that can act as an alarm meaning you are potentially breathing in something harmful, so you should heed that warning and go inside.
People with pets will need to get out, but experts suggest keeping time and travel to a minimum.
Pets need to get out and use their facilities, but not go out running with them, and minimize their time outdoors as well, DeCarlo said. If you can, walk a little slower so you don’t breathe so deeply. This can help.
What should people with asthma, allergies or heart problems do if they have to go out?
One of the recommendations for people with asthma is to use their rescue inhaler 15 minutes before going outside in this kind of air quality, Capo said. If you have any kind of disease whether it’s asthma, allergy or cardiovascular disease that you are under treatment and have a doctor and if you use your medicines, you can reduce the risk of the disease getting worse in this type of air quality.
Patel also advises people with asthma to make sure they have their rescue inhaler, which is usually albuterol, and to make sure you use it correctly with an AeroChamber, a plastic tube with a mouthpiece that increases the effectiveness of the medicine and helps check how the medicine is given. to the small airways in the lungs. Start it early and don’t wait for symptoms to get worse – then this probably means the first sign of a cough or irritation – go ahead and use it. There is no harm in starting the inhaler. And then, if that doesn’t help, contact your primary care physician or seek additional care if you or your child are having difficulty breathing.
What helps indoor air quality?
The recommendation is to close the windows, turn on the air conditioners, turn on the air filters, Capo said.
DeCarlo agrees. Indoor environments are generally about half or less of the concentration of air pollutants from outdoors when it comes to particles, which is what we are concerned with here. And it all disappears as soon as you open the windows and doors and let in the free-flowing air, he said. People who have invested in HEPA air filtration units during Covid, it might be time to take them out again and manage those indoor spaces where we need to minimize our exposure to outdoor air pollution.
Avoid vacuuming for two reasons: You’re probably going to stir things up, and that’s a bit more physical activity if you throw a vacuum cleaner all over the place and you’ll breathe more heavily. So it’s probably something you should avoid, DeCarlo said.
Can allergy medicine help?
It’s not necessarily like allergies. It’s irritating, although I imagine some people may be allergic and have an allergic component to it, Patel said. An antihistamine dries us out, so it could potentially help even if the mechanism is different, meaning the reason you have excess mucus production is different. It will help dry you out, then help unclog your sinuses. It won’t help as much with the anti-itch, I think. But if someone has an allergic component to the smoke from the fire then they should get it.
Can old-fashioned advice like drinking lots of water, eating mints, or drinking strong coffee to breathe easier help?
Drinking water is always very useful. So I’m not going to say no to that, but it’s not going to stop symptoms from being exposed to this poor air quality, Capo said.
Are smoke from wildfires and air quality a long-term health concern?
For this week, that’s just one situation where we have some days of pretty bad air quality. It’s early summer for many of us who are parents, and maybe we can use this as an opportunity to not run as much until this bad air quality passes, DeCarlo said.
We expect fires to become more frequent in a warming climate, which is what we have. We typically see these impacts with wildfires in the Western US and Western Mountain. The east coast is generally a little more isolated from this sort of thing. Our forests tend to be wetter and don’t burn much, but looking ahead with climate change, while this is a unique experience that we’re seeing right now, it could become much less unique and a little more common in the future, which that would be unfortunate.
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