Dry conditions and record heatwaves in the western United States have sparked several wildfires throughout the region, which are severely affecting the air quality in these areas. Breathing in smoke from wildfires can be detrimental to your health, since smoke contains a wide range of potentially harmful particulates as well as gasses like carbon monoxide and cyanide that can rapidly damage your airways. Even if you live a safe distance away from active burning fires, you might still breathe in smoke that can travel many miles, particularly in windy conditions. The following guidelines can help you protect yourself and your family so that you don’t choke on the smoke.

Check the Air Quality in Your Area

In some cities, the evidence of smoke is clearly visible. These are the most dangerous areas, since air quality is worse than some of the most notoriously polluted cities on the planet, such as Shanghai. If you aren’t sure about the conditions in your area, check the air quality before heading outdoors—there may still be smoke and harmful particulates in the air, even when you can’t see them. You can know for sure using the EPA’s AirNow tool, which provides up-to-date local air quality conditions around the country. When air quality is moderate or unhealthy for sensitive groups, those with respiratory issues like asthma should take some extra measures to stay indoors and avoid strenuous exercise. Higher readings of unhealthy, very unhealthy, or hazardous should be taken seriously, since these grades will affect even the healthiest individuals.

Avoid Activities Outdoors

If possible, you should stay indoors at home when smoky conditions are worst. Any outdoor exercise should be postponed, especially after school sports programs and school recess, since kids are even more sensitive to poor air quality. If you normally head outside to walk your dog, consider indoor exercise instead using tug of war toys or chew toys to keep your pet active without an added hazard to his health.

Seal Up Your Home and Vehicle

At home, keep the windows closed and recirculate air when possible. You might also invest in a HEPA or UV filter to improve your overall air quality at home and add an extra level of protection from polluted air outside. In the car, keep your air conditioning on recirculate mode and do not drive with the windows down. It’s also helpful to avoid driving as much as possible, since car exhaust will only continue to decrease air quality in your area.

Wear the Right Face Protection

Because you still have to go to work or school and run daily errands, you will probably have to leave your house when conditions are less than ideal. Reaching for a face mask to cover your mouth and nose is a smart call, but not all masks are designed to protect your face from wildfire smoke. Only N95 or N100 masks are fit for the task, and they will feature two straps that go around the head and neck instead of a single, over the ear strap. Surgical masks and generic construction masks are not effective, because they do nothing to keep out smaller particles, which are the biggest risk with smoke exposure.

Know When to Call Your Doctor

People will be affected by wildfire smoke differently, so it’s important to know the signs of harmful exposure so you know when it’s important to seek medical care. If you or a loved one has watery eyes, a persistent cough, headaches, shortness of breath, or any difficulty breathing, head indoors and call your doctor. Individuals who have a history of asthma, COPD, or other respiratory conditions may need emergency care as soon as these symptoms arise, since complications are more likely. The same is true for children, elderly individuals, and those with chronic illnesses.

Fortunately, it’s easy to get the medical care you need without risking added smoke exposure when you connect with MeMD for a consultation. We provide online doctor visits around the clock, so you can seek non-emergency medical attention even when it isn’t safe to travel.


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