Volcanoes can spew ash, a type of particulate matter air pollution, into the air for miles downwind of the eruption. Volcanic ash can be especially harmful to children, older adults and people with lung disease such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Exposure to volcanic ash can trigger asthma attacks and cause wheezing, coughing, and respiratory irritation in individuals with sensitive airways. The following guidelines will protect your lung health and should be followed especially by those at highest risk, including children and teens; pregnant women; the elderly; anyone with chronic lung disease, cardiovascular disease or diabetes; and healthy adults who must work outdoors.
Follow these Tips to Protect Your Lungs from Volcanic Ash
- Prepare in advance. Have an emergency kit and a family emergency plan. See how to do that at Ready.gov.
- If you have a lung disease, prepare your Asthma or COPD Travel Pack as described below.
- Evacuate if ordered. If you can't evacuate, stay indoors.
- Check the air quality monitoring network to determine the safety of the air quality in your area each day: AirNow.gov.
- Stay inside until the dust settles, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut. Place damp towels at door thresholds and other draft sources; tape drafty windows.
- Put air conditioners on the recirculation setting so outside air will not be moved into the room and clean air will circulate through air conditioners and air cleaners.
- Take extra precaution for children, older adults and people with lung diseases, who are more susceptible to gases and smoke.
If You Go Outside:
- Avoid driving. If you must drive in affected areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the "recirculate" setting.
- Don't count on a dust mask. Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help as they still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with true HEPA filters will filter out the damaging fine particles, but may not fit well and are difficult for people with lung disease to use. Consult with your physician before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease. A dust mask with an N-95 rating is most highly recommended for ash protection.
- Refrain from all outdoor exercise if the air quality forecast is code red (Unhealthy) or higher.
- If you take medications, put them in a convenient place. It is important to continue taking your medicines. Medications you need for an acute episode should be readily available.
- If you don't have any medications, but feel that you might need them, call your physician. Make sure you have clear instructions from your physician as to what to do if your lung condition suddenly worsens.
- Assume that your lung condition may deteriorate and contact your physician as soon as any problem develops. Do not allow a respiratory condition to linger, especially if there is a high concentration of ash particles.
- Ask about your oxygen use. People using oxygen should not adjust their levels of intake before consulting a physician. (Call your doctor BEFORE you take any action.)
Create an Asthma or COPD Travel Pack to ensure you have all of the medicines and instructions you need in one, easily accessible place. When creating your Travel Pack consider including:
- Copies of your Asthma Action Plan or COPD Action Plan
- An extra written prescription in case medication is lost or destroyed
- Insurance card and healthcare provider contact information
- Both quick-relief and controller medications (make sure there is enough to get you through your stay plus extra in case you get held-over unexpectedly)
- A spacer
- A Peak Flow Meter, if prescribed by your healthcare provider
- Allergy medication
When to Seek Medical Attention:
If pulmonary symptoms are not relieved by the usual medicines, seek medical attention. Symptoms to watch for:
- Shortness of breath
- Difficulty taking a full breath
- Chest heaviness
If you have any concerns or questions, please contact your physician.
Watch for breathing issues after exposure. If you develop a persistent cough or difficult or painful breathing, call your physician. Symptoms can appear as late as 24 to 48 hours after exposure. Ash can remain in areas for many days after the volcanic event has ended, and become airborne again during recovery and clean up.
Residents and volunteers should use caution during clean-up because the process involves ashes and other particulates.
- Avoid dust and soot: People with lung or heart problems should avoid clean-up activities and areas where dust or soot is present.
- Reduce airborne particulates: Thoroughly wet dusty and sooty area prior to clean-up. This will help to reduce the amount of particulates becoming airborne.
- Cover your face: Wear an appropriate dust mask during clean up.
For More Information:
- U.S. Geological Survey: Current alerts for U.S. volcanoes
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Volcanoes
- Ready.gov: Volcanoes
While these suggestions are intended especially for children, older adults and persons suffering from respiratory conditions (asthma, COPD), they are also useful for normally healthy adults during episodes of volcanic haze.
For more information on disaster recovery, please contact our Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA.
Approved by Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel. Last reviewed October 31, 2017.