Wildfires (Forest Fires) + Your Lungs
Last year, I had the pleasure to introduce Dr. Sarah Henderson’s session at the Asthma Society of Canada 2015 conference on environment and asthma. Dr. Henderson (whom I should add, has self-identified in her Twitter bio as “inordinately fond of data and penguins”—I obviously took an instant liking to her!), is from the University of British Columbia, and presented on the effects of heat (and therefore, climate change) on asthma. Part of this discussion included a portion of her research on the effect of forest fires on asthma, followed by what you should do if smoke from wildfires is causing you problems. Note: I’ve determined that I *think* the common term is “wildfire” in the US and “forest fire” in Canada. I’m going to use forest fire, but they are the same according to most sources.
Smoke exposure makes asthma worse
Smoke exposure makes asthma worse: this was not news to me. However, Dr. Henderson presented this in a way that fascinated me just a bit (okay, somewhere, I have a picture of the slide!). Data was gathered in 2013’s forest fire season in British Columbia, Canada, that—instead of comparing forest fire data to emergency treatment for asthma or hospitalization—compared the amount of short-acting bronchodilator medications (rescue or reliever inhalers) dispensed by pharmacists to the level of a specific type of particulate matter (AKA gross stuff in the air) generated by forest fires (PM 2.5, specifically).1
What I like about this study, titled Time series analysis of fine particulate matter and asthma reliever dispensations in populations affected by forest fires (Elliott, Henderson & Wan, 2013) (Figure 5 is the graph I mentioned), is the recognition of the many patients that may be managing their disease at home.2 It was noted that even a small increase in particulate matter (PM2.5) was linked with a 6% increase in filled prescriptions for rescue medications for approximately 4 days following forest fires2, indicating an increased need for new or renewed prescriptions of these medications among people with respiratory disease (asthma specifically) in the area as a whole.
Here in Canada, 2016 has already brought one of the largest forest fires in the country’s history, in Fort McMurray, Alberta. In the United States, as of May 27, there had been 11 new “large incident” fires in the past week, 4 of them uncontained.3
How to deal with forest fire/wildfire smoke if you have asthma
In the US, Google Crisis Map can be used to see fires that may be close to your area. If you click the filters, you can also get a breakdown for air quality, and a specific filter for PM 2.5, which—as we’ve learned—is present in smoke from these fires.
Children’s Hospital Colorado notes that even though the air may look clear, there still may be smoke present that can cause breathing problems, in addition to other health problems or even breathing problems even for those without asthma or other lung issues.4 If smoke is a problem, or asthma trigger, it is recommended that you stay indoors, limit vigorous outdoor activity, and use recuse medication beforehand if you must go outside. Indoors, it may also help to change your clothes when you come inside, as particles can get stuck in your clothes and cause breathing problems.4 If breathing problems begin outdoors, you should go inside and rest until you are breathing better—if you have asthma, use your rescue inhaler.
Children’s Hospital Colorado recommends medical attention be sought if rescue medicine is required more often than every four hours.4 Children may be more susceptible to problems caused by forest fire smoke, but these tips are just as important for adults to remember, too! Closing windows and using an air-conditioner can help if the air is recycled, and not brought in constantly from the outdoors; air cleaners can help as well but should not be purchased when smoke levels are high, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. Dust masks are not enough to help filter the air from smoke.5
If your breathing gets worse or is not improving with medication, you have severe asthma symptoms, or generally do not feel well and are concerned, it is always best to be seen by your doctor, or an urgent care clinic or emergency department to have your concerns and symptoms looked after. Of course, this is an important precaution to always take, not only when smoke is a problem in your area!
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