Living in the Mountain West During Fire Season With Asthma
Most of my posts here at Asthma.net tend to be clinically focused because I am a registered nurse and healthcare writer of many years. However, I am also a person living with asthma since childhood, albeit mild intermittent asthma. Today, I want to share my experience with living through forest fire season with asthma.
For nine years, I lived in Boise, Idaho, which was about 2 to 3 hours from the closest dense forests and mountains. We did have nearby forest fires every year and they did affect air quality. This was particularly true when an atmospheric inversion set in, which kept the smoke trapped in our valley. Seldom, however, were the effects severe enough to trigger any severe asthma flares for me.
However, for the past 2 years, I’ve lived in Durango, Colorado, a mountain town that is surrounded by forests and mountains. Each of the last two summers, we’ve had forest fires close to town. The one last year was close to town, but luckily was contained fairly quickly and only affected our air quality for a few days.
This year, however, we’ve had a forest fire of 36,000 acres raging for almost a month now that is only about 10 to 12 miles from my home. It’s called the “416 Fire,” and you can follow its progress and what our wonderful firefighters are doing to try to contain it best they can by clicking the link. During the past 4 weeks, the air quality has been significantly affected, particularly overnight and in the morning hours. And that has made it tough for me to breathe at times, especially while trying to sleep.
Although my asthma is mild, my nasal and eye allergies have always been severe. Needless to say, the poor air quality has triggered nasal, eye and airway inflammation, which has resulted in some pretty nasty symptoms. And those allergy symptoms have aggravated my asthma too. No fun!
If you live in the mountain west as I do and find forest fires affecting your air quality and triggering your asthma, you are not helpless, though. There are actions we can take to keep asthma under control.
Understanding Particulate Matter Pollution
When there is smoke and ash in the air, it’s known as a type of “particulate matter pollution.” Forest fires are not the only cause of this type of air pollution. Other sources can be:
- Dusty, unpaved roads
- Construction sites
- Industrial power plants
- Car exhaust
- Trapped wood smoke and soot, a common occurrence during “inversions“
Most particle pollution consists of nitrates, sulfates, organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles in the air. The degree of pollution can vary greatly from season to season. There are different sizes of particles in pollution and how they affect us may vary:
- Larger particles, called PM10, are visible (such as smoke) and can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat
- Finer particles, called PM25, are less visible, and more dangerous, as they are easily inhaled into the deepest reaches of your lungs
How Particle Pollution Can Affect Your Health
Particle pollution can affect both healthy people and those with chronic health conditions, but obviously the threat is more risky when you already have inflamed airways from conditions such as asthma or COPD. Other at risk populations include:
- Those with heart conditions
- Older adults
- Babies and children
Monitoring Air Quality
Obviously, knowing when particle pollution is high is the first step in protecting yourself and keeping your asthma under control. If you live in an area where pollution is consistently high, such as near a factory or the inner city, you will need to take protective measures most of the time. But, if like me, you live in a place where the air is generally clean and clear — except during forest fire season — then knowing how to monitor air quality can be an essential step in your self care.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC for short) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA for short) recommend the EPA Air Quality Index site (AirNow.gov) for checking the air quality status in your area. You can enter your zip code to get current status as well as future forecasts. You can even set up alerts from this website.
Personally, though, I’ve found the constant monitoring at PurpleAir to be more helpful in my instance with monitoring the fluctuations in air quality from our nearby forest fire. There are 6 sensors in my area that help guide me as to where I will be most comfortable. Believe it or not, the air quality often varies considerably in different parts of town!
Maintaining Your Asthma Control in the Face of Particle Pollution
As you might imagine, staying indoors when pollution is high is your best bet. I try not to go out much at night or early morning (or not for long) when the smoke tends to move down into my area. If you must go outdoors, strive for non-strenuous exercise. Running and/or other types of exercise that may cause you to breathe deeper and faster when particle pollution is high is not advised.
Keeping your windows closed and air conditioner on is also advised. Unfortunately, I don’t have air conditioning and we are in the midst of a heat wave, so keeping my windows completely closed is not always possible. I do what I can, though. Another option is to buy an air purifier, although the jury is still out as to their effectiveness in helping with asthma. Still, it can’t hurt.
Other important actions you can take to maintain asthma control include:
- Having an updated Asthma Action Plan to guide you and any caregivers
- Making sure your prescriptions for your inhalers and other asthma medication are up to date and filled
- Taking your asthma controller/preventer medicine every single day as prescribed
- Keeping your rescue inhaler close by at all times, in the event of an asthma attack
- Taking your allergy medication, if needed, to decrease allergic inflammation
Whether you live in an area that is subject to summertime forest fires as I do, or you live in a place where particle pollution is more constant, it’s essential to understand how air quality can affect your asthma control. And then to take steps to protect yourself and prevent asthma attacks and flare-ups. Should an asthma attack occur, take action quickly to get your symptoms back under control. Seek emergency care if needed.