Protect Yourself from Lethal Wildfire Smoke

Denver (June 12, 2013)

Dangerous smoke resulting from wildfires poses lethal health hazards to people living and working in the surrounding areas. Residents with respiratory problems such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and also those with chronic heart disease should take extra precautions during this time and call their physician immediately if problems develop.

“High level of particulate matter pollution caused by wildfire smoke can lead to health problems for everyone, but the young, the elderly, and those with existing lung diseases are at special risk," said Dr. Anthony Gerber, a pulmonary specialist at National Jewish Health. “Scientific studies have proved that exposure to the pollutants in wildfire smoke causes exacerbations of asthma and other forms of chronic lung disease, leading to shortness of breath, cough, and hospitalization. Wildfire smoke also increases the risk of infection, heart attack and stroke."

People living near fire-stricken areas are encouraged to stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut—with clean air circulating through air conditioners and/or air cleaners. Residents should use the recirculation setting on their home air conditioners to avoid outdoor air contamination, but using whole house fans is not recommended, because they can bring in unfiltered outside air.

When driving through smoky areas, car windows and vents should be kept closed. Air conditioning should be set to “recirculate” to avoid exposure to unhealthy outside air.

Those living in surrounding areas of the fires should avoid exercising outdoors, particularly if they smell smoke or experience eye or throat irritation.

“Although it may be almost impossible to completely avoid smoke exposure, minimizing exposure is the next best thing," said Gerber. "Anyone with chronic heart or lung conditions who experiences increased symptoms should contact their health care provider for advice. Parents should also take special precautions with young children, whose developing respiratory systems are particularly vulnerable to the effects of smoke exposure.”

The American Lung Association advises asthma patients who cannot reach their doctor to continue to take their medication and closely follow their asthma action plan as prescribed.

More information on how to protect yourself during wildfires can be found here. You can also call the American Lung Association Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA to speak to someone directly, or submit a question online. We're here to answer your lung health questions.

Dr Gerber serves on the Advocacy Committee of the American Lung Association in Colorado.