Written by Sarah Thebarge, Physician Assistant
July through November is considered “wildfire season” in much of the western U.S. because dry vegetation, low rates of precipitation and warm winds combine to create conditions in which wildfires are most likely to occur.
Currently, California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Idaho, Arizona and several other states have active wildfires, with winds carrying the smoke from the fires in California as far as Kansas, which is 1,500 miles away.
Wildfires and the smoke they generate can cause several health and safety risks. Here are safety tips to follow if you live in an area that is affected.
1. Monitor the Air Quality Index (AQI).
The AQI is a system used by government officials to measure harmful particles in the air and communicate to the public what the risk is of breathing that air. The system has six levels: Good, Moderate, Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups, Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy and Hazardous. Keeping track of the AQI is a good way to limit your exposure to poor-quality air.
2. Use an air filter.
The pollutant most wildfires create is referred to as PM2.5. PM stands for “Particulate Matter,” and 2.5 refers to the size of the particles, which are 2.5 micrometers. For reference, a PM2.5 particle is about 3% of the diameter of a human hair.
Because these particles are microscopic, they can easily enter your home, even if your doors and windows are closed. For that reason, it’s useful to run an air filter during wildfire season. If you have air conditioning, make sure you use a filter that’s designed to filter out microscopic particulate matter.
3. Don’t exercise outdoors.
If you live in an area affected by the smoke from the wildfires, it’s important to avoid exercising outdoors, especially when the AQI is high. PM2.5 particles are so fine, they can deposit deep within the lung tissue, and sometimes even spread to the bloodstream. This exposure can cause both short term and long-term damage to the heart and lungs.
Until the wildfires resolve, it’s a good idea to get your exercise indoors. If you’re looking for ideas, lots of exercise videos are available online (and many of them are free!)
4. Know your risk factors.
When the AQI is between 101-150, it’s considered “Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups.” Sensitive groups include the elderly, young children and anyone with heart or lung conditions. If you fall into one of these groups, it’s imperative that you stay indoors whenever possible to avoid exposure to unhealthy air.
5. Refill your medications.
Whether you’ve been prescribed medication to take on a daily basis or medications to take as needed, it’s important to make sure you have plenty on hand. The pandemic has already altered the hours of many pharmacies and caused a delay in prescription refills, and the wildfires are likely to cause even further disruptions and delays. Plus, if you live close to the fires, there’s a possibility that you may be evacuated.
6. Review your treatment plan.
If you have a chronic lung condition like COPD or asthma, you should have a treatment plan that’s been created specifically for you by your healthcare provider. This plan includes what medications to take on a daily basis, which medications to take as needed and what symptoms should prompt you to seek medical attention.
Since the wildfires can exacerbate respiratory conditions, it’s important for you to review and closely follow your treatment plan. If you don’t have a treatment plan in place, work with your healthcare provider to create one.
7. Pack an evacuation bag.
Because of high temperatures and strong winds, the course of a wildfire can change suddenly, which means officials may issue evacuation orders at any moment. Since you may need to leave your home in a hurry, it’s wise to pack an evacuation bag in advance.
This bag should include clothes, glasses or contact lenses, keys, medications, water, non-perishable food, face coverings, hand sanitizer, a flashlight, a first aid kit, cash, batteries, charging devices, important documents and a map marked with at least two evacuation routes.
8. Stay up to date on news alerts.
Because conditions can change quickly, it’s important to pay attention to news alerts throughout the day. Keep your radio or TV tuned to a news station, or sign up to get emergency alerts on your phone so you can receive the most up-to-date information.
9. Heed evacuation and other safety recommendations.
If officials in your area issue evacuation orders or other safety recommendations, it’s imperative that you follow them immediately. Failure to act quickly can put you and your family in life-saving danger, and also pose added risk to rescue crews.
10. Know when to seek medical attention.
In the midst of monitoring the wildfires, following AQIs and heeding safety recommendations (not to mention also navigating a global pandemic!) it’s important to also pay attention to how your body is feeling and functioning.
Please seek prompt medical attention if you develop any concerning symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest pain, wheezing, dizziness or any other red flags.
At GoHealth Urgent Care, we’re open 7 days a week. Find a center if there’s anything we can do to help you feel better today.