As wildfires continue to cause destruction across the western United States, many Americans are currently living amidst varying degrees of hazardous air quality.
These fires create particulate matter (or PM), which is dangerous when inhaled into human lungs, tissues, and blood. “This smoke can irritate and hurt your nose, throat, respiratory and cardiovascular systems, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases,” warns Steve Rad, M.D., a physician at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles. “It can cause wheezing, asthma attacks, coughing, shortness of breath, runny nose, sore throat, headache, watery and burning dry eyes, chest pain, irregular and fast heartbeat, fatigue, and even heart attacks.”
Those with pre-existing health conditions—like asthma, COPD, heart or lung disease, and diabetes—are most sensitive, according to research published in Canadian Family Physician. Senior citizens, pregnant women, and infants and children also face increased risk.
If you’re living in an area with compromised air quality as a result of the current fires, your concern is understandable—and totally justified. Luckily, there are a few important steps you can take to safeguard your health. Doctors recommend these five precautions.
1. Stay Informed And Prepared
The news might be especially scary right now, but it’s important to stay tuned into your local news for emergency announcements, as fires travel and shift direction quickly. “Fire and public officials issue alerts on air quality and the current activity of the wildfire,” notes Frank Coletta, M.D., Chief of Critical Care Medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau in New York. “If a prolonged state of emergency is anticipated, be sure to stock up on groceries and medications.”
2. Limit Exposure to the Outdoors
While you might not want to stay cooped inside right now, it’s the safest way to limit your exposure to smoke and avoid the toxic effects of poor air quality. “The air from forest fires can be filled with soot and debris, so it’s best to minimize outdoor activities and exposure to the poor air quality,” says Osita Onugha, M.D., assistant professor of thoracic surgical oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica. “The best thing is to try to remain indoors to decrease the amount of soot you inhale.”
3. Keep indoor air as clean as possible
While inside, keep windows, vents, blinds, and doors closed. You should also set air conditioners to ‘recirculate’ mode and keep filters clean so that outdoor dirty air and smoke don’t get inside, recommends Rad. “Avoid things that can increase indoor air pollution, such as fireplaces, gas stoves, candles, incense, smoking, and vacuuming,” he adds.
If you don’t own one already, now is a great time to invest in a portable HEPA filter air purifier. These devices extract any particulates that find their way into your home. “For those with central air conditioning, install a medium-(MERV 5-8) or high-efficiency (MERV 9-12) air filter,” says Coletta.
4. Wear protection when outside
Whenever you do have to go outside, wear a properly fitted mask. Yes, even if it’s a quick trip down your driveway and into your car, Coletta recommends.
“When in your car, reduce the smoke in your vehicle by keeping the windows shut and running the air conditioner on ‘recirculate’ mode to avoid the entrance of outside air,” he adds.
5. Take precautions when cleaning up
Once the fires subside, massive cleanup efforts will be necessary in many communities. Protecting yourself from the harmful effects of ash will be paramount. In addition to a mask, Coletta recommends wearing gloves, a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and goggles. Avoid any direct contact with ash and wash off any that gets on your skin as soon as possible.
Another tip: “Before sweeping, gently wet dry ash to avoid kicking particles in the air,” he says. “And, only use a HEPA filter-equipped vacuum.” Of course, those at high risk (older adults, children, pregnant women, and those with pre-existing conditions) should avoid cleaning altogether.
6. Load up on certain nutrients
While it’s always important to eat healthily, it’s especially crucial when living amidst poor air quality, notes The Vitamin Shoppe nutritionist Brittany Michels, R.D. “Certain nutrients have respiratory benefits, including vitamin C, which may aid in protecting the lungs,” she says. To ramp up your intake, you can take up to 2,000 or 3,000 milligrams per day, split up between the morning, lunchtime, and evening.
Read More: 10 Sources Of Vitamin C That Aren’t Oranges
“Zinc, an immune-boosting nutrient, also plays a role in respiratory health, immune function, cell division and growth, and protein metabolism,” she adds. Women need at least eight milligrams daily, while men need 11. Shellfish, red meat, and legumes are all good sources of the mineral.
Another supplement worth considering right now: bromelain, an enzyme found in pineapple, which can support sinus and respiratory health. Michels recommends taking up to 3,000 milligrams, split up throughout the day.
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