How inhaling wildfire smoke can wreak havoc on your health
As wildfires rage, exposure to the harmful heavy smoke as its carried hundreds of miles away can take a toll on us if we're not careful and fail to recognize key symptoms.
As wildfire smoke clouds the skies over the United States, smoky skies may pose a risk to those with heart conditions.
The thick wildfire smoke that has blanketed New York and the other parts of the Northeast over the past week has renewed health concerns over such persistent high concentrations of poor air quality.
Winds have carried the heavy smoke hundreds of miles from Quebec, Canada, where thousands of acres have succumbed to multiple raging wildfires. And some of the worst air pollution days in recent years -- and their harmful effects -- are not expected to let up anytime soon, according to AccuWeather meteorologists.
The sun is shrouded as it rises in a hazy, smokey sky behind the Empire State Building, One Vanderbilt and the Chrysler Building in New York City on June 6, 2023, as seen from Jersey City, New Jersey. (Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)
So how does such exposure to smoke-laden air affect us and what can we do?
With the potential of drier and hotter conditions continuing and exacerbating the upsurge in wildfires in North America, the smoke can pose serious health threats ranging from irritated eyes to heart and lung problems.
Wildfire smoke contains very tiny particulate matter, or 2.5 micrometers in diameter – the tiniest pollutant, about 1/20th the width of a human hair, yet also the most dangerous. When inhaled, it can travel deep into lung tissue and enter the bloodstream, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Anytime you talk about smoke inhalation, it’s a potentially a life-threatening situation,” said Dr. Andrew Ordon, an ENT specialist and general surgeon.
More than 2,000 people each year succumb to the effects of wildfire air pollution, research shows.
Researchers who examined the health impacts of U.S. wildfires from 2008 to 2012 found that up to 8,500 people are sent to the hospital with smoke-related respiratory issues annually.
“If you inhale too much smoke, it can lead to respiratory failure and you’re not exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide the way you’re supposed to,” Ordon said.
Skies across the northeastern United States were orange and hazy as smoke from wildfires burning in Canada swept into the region on June 6.
In the U.S., nearly 519,000 acres have been charred by wildfires so far this year (2023), according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
When the result of burning trees and grass is inhaled, a person is breathing in more than just smoke and ashes.
Toxins and fumes are added to the harmful mix when other things burn, like plastic from house fires.
“If you’re close to the fire, you’ll be exposed to carbon monoxide, which poisons your red blood cells and interferes with oxygen uptake, [as well as] nitrogen dioxide, which dissolves in the airway lining fluid to generate a powerful acid that hurts small airways,” said Dr. Brian Christman, a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association.
Of particular concern is the inhalation of the tiny particulate matter, Christman said.
“These are small enough to be carried into the alveoli, the tiny air sacs of the lung,” he said.
This can significantly increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.
A man wears a face mask as smoke continues to shroud the sun as it rises behind the skyline of Manhattan in New York City on June 7, 2023, as seen from Weehawken, New Jersey. (Photo by Kena Betancur/VIEWpress/Getty Images)
“When you’re breathing things in, before they get to the lungs, you’re affecting all of your upper airways – your nasal cavity, oral cavity, throat and vocal cords,” Ordon said.
Sinus trouble and increased cough can also occur. Children, the elderly and people with certain pre-existing conditions, including congestive heart failure, cystic fibrosis and allergic rhinitis, are particularly at risk.
“If somebody has underlying respiratory problems, like asthma, emphysema, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and if you’re a smoker, these people get into trouble quickly because they already have a compromised respiratory and pulmonary function,” Ordon said.
Recognizing the symptoms
Wildfire smoke’s impacts on the human body can present themselves in a number of ways and can lead to chronic health issues.
“Look for changes in your voice and burning in the nasal cavity, the mouth and the throat, which would indicate that you are getting exposure that is irritating the lining of your airway,” Ordon said.
Other symptoms include:
• Shortness of breath
• Chest pain
• An asthma attack
• Fast heartbeat
• Eye irritation or stinging eyes
• Sore or scratchy throat
• Runny nose
Those with heart disease and respiratory issues will likely experience worsening symptoms including tiredness, coughing or wheezing. Experts advise anyone experiencing such symptoms to seek immediate medical attention.
How to stay safe
To minimize the threat of wildfire smoke, it is recommended that those in impacted areas remain inside with doors and windows shut to keep the polluted air outside.
Drivers are also advised to keep windows closed and set the air conditioning to recirculate mode.
Wearing the appropriate mask is crucial, because not all masks will prevent wildfire smoke inhalation.
“There are a lot of good, high-quality masks available,” Ordon said. “Make sure that it’s one that is high grade and has a rating system that will keep the majority of particles and smoke filtered out.”
Appropriate masks include N95 or KN95 masks. Dust masks are not recommended.
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