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How to cope with wildfire smoke

A wildfire burning

Sept. 16, 2020—When wildfires burn, damaging smoke plumes form, polluting the air for days to weeks at a time. Even if you live far from a forest, smoke from distant blazes can lower local air quality.

Breathing wildfire smoke can make you feel sick and can cause irritated eyes and sinuses, coughing, and a scratchy throat. But for some, the smoke triggers more serious health problems, like asthma attacks and COPD flare-ups. It can also aggravate chronic heart disease. And it may be dangerous for people who have COVID-19 or are recovering from it.

These health issues mean everyone should try to reduce their exposure to wildfire smoke. But it's especially important for older adults, children, and people with COVID-19 or heart or lung disease to do so. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer these suggestions:

Before it gets smoky out

  • If you have heart or lung disease, ask your doctor how to stay healthy during fire season. And follow your management plan.
  • Consider buying a portable air cleaner (often called an air purifier) to help reduce any smoke that gets into your home. If you buy one, check that it does not produce ozone (another air pollutant) and that it is large enough for the room where you'll use it.
  • Pay attention to media reports about wildfire smoke and air quality, and follow any warnings for your area. You can also get air quality updates at AirNow.gov.
  • Stock up if a smoke event is predicted. If you have enough food, medicines and other supplies, it may be easier to stay indoors when it's smoky.
  • If you have an air conditioner, install high-efficiency filters. An air-conditioning specialist can tell you which filters to use.

When it's smoky out

  • Try to stay indoors as much as you can. Close the windows and doors. If your air conditioner has a fresh-air intake, keep it closed. And use a home air cleaner, if you have one.
  • If you have to go outside, keep in mind that paper or cloth face masks designed for COVID-19 don't protect you from wildfire smoke. Only an N95 respirator can filter out fine particles of smoke. But those are in high demand for healthcare workers right now, so it's better to stay in if you can.
  • Avoid strenuous activities, like mowing the lawn, when it looks or smells smoky out.
  • When driving, use the recirculate mode in your car's air conditioner to avoid drawing in smoky air.
  • If the air gets a little better, even temporarily, open doors and windows to air out your home.
  • Call your doctor if you feel sick or if you have COVID-19 or heart or lung disease and your symptoms get worse.
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