The last few weeks on the west coast have unfolded with a series of catastrophic wildfires, which have burned through tens of thousands of acres of land, killed over 70 people, and destroyed thousands of homes. The fires might be largely contained now, but they're still burning. Because of that, the air quality for hundreds of miles has been polluted with smoke and other toxins released from the fire. If you live in an affected area, knowing how to protect yourself from wildfire smoke is critical for your health, and will likely be important for weeks to come.
According to The New York Times, health risks from wildfire smoke are especially high for children, older adults, and anyone who suffers from heart or lung diseases. But regardless of whether you have a clean bill of health or not, you should be aware of the levels of smoke in your neighborhood and take measures to avoid inhaling that air as much as possible.
This might mean skipping your standard outdoor exercise for an indoor workout. It will also entail shutting your windows and trying to stay inside for as much of your day as possible. If you're using central air conditioning, you should see if you can switch for an option for recirculating air rather than your system taking in polluted air from outside.
The reason why you need to be so careful is that, according to experts, particles in wildfire smoke can be inhaled into your lungs and then enter your bloodstream, causing multiple health issues. The American Lung Association further warns you to be careful if you're assisting in any clean up activities in your community, because there will be extra amounts of soot and dust in areas affected by a wildfire, and that could exacerbate any breathing issues you have.
If you're wondering whether to wear a surgical mask or not, though, the answer isn't so simple. The New York Times reports that though a surgical mask is the best type of mask to filter out pollutants in the air, it also can be dangerous to wear. Surgical masks can often limit oxygen flow in addition to air pollutants, which could make you short of breath or cause you to pass out.
That's why it's important to opt for staying inside as much as possible while the air quality is bad in your area. You should also track the air quality each day to see where plumes of smoke are headed and just how bad the air quality is in your area, which you can do in this interactive New York Times feature.
Above all, you should seek medical attention if you're feeling any of the following symptoms, according to the American Lung Association: shortness of breath, chest heaviness, wheezing, difficulty taking a full breath, dizziness or lightheadedness.
Regardless of whether you're living in California or a neighboring state, you should keep an eye on the movement of smoke through your area in the coming days. California's wildfire smoke has reached other states in the last few weeks.
For example, BBC reports that New Mexico sees an increase in particulate matter in the air by threefold whenever there are wildfires in California. What's more, one study by several universities concluded that approximately 82 million people in the U.S. will be negatively impacted by wildfire smoke in the next 20 years.