How to protect yourself during smoke days

The haze in Seattle the morning of September 5, 2017.

By Andrew Lanier

Western Washington got a couple days of relief, but the smoky haze was back by Monday morning with air quality dropping around the region.

At best, air quality hit "moderate" in cities like Seattle and Everett Monday morning, according to monitors. But many areas, such as Tacoma and Kent, were rated as "unhealthy." The National Weather Service expects the smoky conditions to stay around for a few days. An air quality alert is in effect until Wednesday evening.

Most of the West Coast has been on fire this season, sending wildfire smoke into Washington state. Smoke has come from British Columbia, Oregon, and California.

The weather service has also issued an air quality alert for Eastern Washington and North Idaho. Those regions also face wildfire smoke from British Columbia, causing unhealthy air levels through Tuesday.

Prepare for smoke days

When air grows unhealthy from all the wildfire haze along the West Coast, it’s not just people commonly at risk of heath complications who should be concerned during smoke days.

Dr. Gustavo Ferrer — a pulmonary specialist from Georgetown University and the Cleveland Clinic in South Florida — says elderly people, young children, and those with lung issues like asthma are at the most risk. But even kids with no history of breathing problems can have asthma-like symptoms triggered by poor-quality air and even end up in the emergency room.

“There are kids that do not have a history of asthma, but may have predisposing genetic factors for that, and they haven’t been diagnosed and they get exposed to poor air quality and that will definitely trigger a reaction similar to asthma,” Ferrer said. “Some call it reactive airway disease — meaning the wind pipes are reacting to the toxins they are inhaling. We see the same phenomenon in secondhand smoking children … it’s similar to that.”

Dr. Ferrer stresses limiting exposure to the wildfire pollution – for everyone – not just kids and the elderly. Exercising outdoors is an especially bad idea. But we all have to spend some time outside, so Dr. Ferrer has a couple recommendations to limit risk.

First: Use a saline nasal spray a couple times a day to rinse out toxic particles from your sinuses and nasal passages.

Second: Consider changing the air filters in your car and home. Go ahead and ask your boss when the last time new filters were installed in the office.

After all, most of what we breathe goes through the filters in our offices, homes, and cars. Plus, when was the last time you remembered to swap yours out? Might as well do it now.

And finally: Stay hydrated.

“It is important to hydrate because we lose a lot of water through breathing,” Ferrer said. “When we inhale any toxins, the lungs need to build mucus and the mucus will engulf anything we inhale and we cough that out.”

Other tips for smoke days:

  • Be aware of air quality in your area by checking regional monitors.
  • Wear a mask if you work outside. Use a mask rated N95 or better which can be found at most hardware stores. Not all masks will fend off small particles from smoke, so do your research.
  • Keep windows and doors closed, preventing smoky air from getting inside.
  • Use an air filter at home that is rated is MERV 13 or higher.
  • Avoiding using candles, fireplaces, gas stoves, or anything else that can increase air pollution inside.
  • If wildfires are approaching or air quality is too poor, leave the area.
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