Exposure to wildfire smoke has health effects

Read the AQI, then plan your day accordingly, respiratory specialists say

Exposure to wildfire smoke has health effects

It seems like the sun is playing a game of hide-and-seek.

By all indications, like the recent warming temperatures, it’s still there.

It’s just hidden behind a multi-state-spanning cloud of smoke, stemming from several large wildfires burning in Canada.

Impact of wildfire smoke

The smoke isn’t just a damper on an otherwise sun-filled day. It can also be dangerous for those with respiratory conditions, said Lori Shoman, a registered respiratory therapist at Sanford Health in Fargo, North Dakota.

“Several groups of people are more likely to have a stronger reaction to the haze or smoke. People with lung disease, like asthma or COPD, emphysema,” she said.

Young children, older adults, and pregnant women can also experience harsher side effects.

“As they get further along in pregnancy, the baby takes up space in the abdomen, so it pushes up on the lungs. This restricts the volume of air they can inhale, resulting in making it harder to take deep breaths,” she explained.

Avoiding harms of haze

Those with underlying conditions aren’t the only ones at risk for feeling the smoke’s effects. Anyone could.

So, how can we avoid this?

There’s a couple of answers. The first you can probably guess: limit your time outdoors.

“Limit your time outside and exposure to smoke. If you typically go for a walk outside, find a different exercise inside, or go to the mall to walk instead, things like that,” said Shoman.

The second way, according to Bismarck, North Dakota based Sanford Health pulmonologist Haven Malish, M.D, is knowing what exactly the haziness is.

“Is it actual pollen? Is it fog? So, reference the daily AQI, or air quality index. That’s going to give you a good reference point of knowing if what you’re looking at is actually harmful,” he said.

Reading the AQI

Dr. Malish explained the AQI is pretty user-friendly, and it will give you a good indication if it’s safe to head outdoors.

“It’s usually color coded,” he said.

The color is determined by the number of particles in the air, when the air is tested:

  • Green (good) means zero to 50 particles
  • 51 to 100 is yellow (moderate)
  • 101 to 150 is orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups)
  • 151 to 200 is red (unhealthy)
  • 201 to 300 is purple (very unhealthy)
  • 301-500 is maroon (hazardous)

Complications of unhealthy air quality

Dr. Malish said there’s a number of problems that could arise if these numbers and warnings are ignored, especially if one has an underlying condition.

“If someone goes outside and they don’t heed the warnings, they could end up in the emergency room or urgent care for an exacerbation of their underlying condition,” said Dr. Malish.

Related: Don’t let asthma prevent you from sports

He said an exacerbation can be especially damaging for COPD patients.

“The exacerbation could very well be triggered from one of these pollution or haziness situations. Those (COPD) patients were six times more likely to have a heart attack, or something similar, within the first couple of days of the exacerbation.”

When should I seek care?

If it’s becoming more difficult to breathe, it’s time to talk to your primary care provider, said Dr. Malish.

“Especially if it’s a new problem. It may not be a lung problem per se. Breathing issues can sometimes be representative of other things, like a heart condition.

“If you go outside and you’re short of breath, the first thing is to talk to your doctor. Don’t assume it’s from any particular thing. Talk to do your doctor first.”

Learn more

Posted In Bismarck, Fargo, Healthy Living, Pulmonology, Vascular