The Western Wildfire Fiasco: Protecting Yourself Physically and Mentally

Wildfire smoke 2020

The wildfires currently raging unchecked across large parts of the western United States have been in the news for quite some time now. After 10,000 lightning strikes in only 3 days, hundreds of wildfires were said to erupt across California, particularly covering its northern side. Exacerbated by a historic heatwave, these wildfires have burned over 3.4 million acres of the state since August 16, 2020, causing smoke to spread across large swaths of the pacific ocean and the western U.S.

The entire pacific coast from California to Washington, and neighboring States are ablaze during the summer of 2020, leaving many people dead and others homeless. 

While the direct impact of these wildfires and their unprecedented ferocity are a concern for many western States, another major problem that most people are facing is the wildfire smoke. This smoke is extremely dangerous for it mixes small, harmful particles in the air. These solid and liquid particles, known as aerosols, decrease the air quality and deteriorate human health significantly.

So amidst this chaotic situation, what should you know about the wildfire smoke? How dangerous is it and how can you protect yourself from it? The article will help you grasp all the necessary details.

What is Wildfire Smoke and What Can It Do to Your Body?

Wildfire smoke

Wildfire smoke is a mixture of gases, such as nitrogen oxide and carbon monoxide, together with fine particles due to the burning of building materials, vegetation, and other substances. The exact composition of such smoke may vary depending on the location, fuel, weather, and the distance from the wildfire. [1]

Breathing in smoke can lead to several immediate effects such as [2]

  • Tiredness
  • Asthma attack
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • A scratchy throat
  • Coughing
  • Stinging in eyes
  • Shortness of breath
  • Runny nose
  • Wheezing
  • Irritated sinuses

Who is Most at Risk?

wildfire risks

While all healthy people may get affected by inhaling the wildfire smoke, some of them are at a higher risk than others. These include:

  • A person suffering from a lung or heart disease; such as angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, ischemic heart disease, asthma, and emphysema. [3] [4]
  • A person belonging to an older age group because it makes you more vulnerable to diseases of the lung and heart.
  • Children and teenagers because their respiratory systems are still under development. Moreover, they also tend to breathe more air per pound of their body weight as compared to adults. They are also more likely to go outside and have a higher incidence of asthma.
  • A person suffering from diabetes, since it makes you more vulnerable to developing cardiovascular diseases.
  • A pregnant woman, because the smoke can cause potential damage to her and her unborn baby. The exposed fetuses might also have a low birth weight when they are born. [5] 

How to Tell if the Smoke is Affecting You?

Fatigued woman

Inhaling a high concentration of smoke can trigger a whole range of symptoms.

  • Anyone may develop a runny nose, burning eyes, wheezing, cough, and difficulty in breathing.
  • If you have a lung or heart disease, it may worsen your symptoms.
  • People with heart disease may develop palpitations, fatigue, chest pain, or shortness of breath.
  • People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as vigorously or as deeply as usual. They may also develop a wheeze, cough, phlegm, or chest discomfort.

What Can You Do About it?

Wildfires

There are multiple steps that you can take to minimize your risk of developing any health problems due to wildfire smoke. Let's look at them one by one.

Pay More Attention to the Local Reports about Air Quality

When there is a wildfire in your area, the best thing to do is turn on the news and watch any health warnings about the smoke. Pay special attention to all public health messages, and make sure to follow all safety precautions like limiting time spent outdoors. Also, look online or to your smart watch for air quality index reports in your area. 

Keep Checking the Visibility Guides if Available

It is not common for every community to measure the number of particles present in the air. However, many of them in the Western U.S. have issued guidelines to help others estimate the air quality based on how far you can see. Look them up and keep them in mind for your own safety.

Stay Indoors and Keep the Air as Clean as Possible

If you have been instructed not to leave the house then you must stay indoors and keep all doors and windows closed unless it is a hot day outside. Use an air conditioner if you have one, but make sure that you have closed its fresh-air intake and activated the clean filter to prevent the smoke from coming in.

If it is too warm to stay inside with closed windows and you do not have an air conditioner, try seeking shelter elsewhere.

Use an Air Filter

Get an indoor air filter with particle removal technology to help yourself breathe easily. These air filters are particularly helpful for people with asthma and heart diseases, the children, and the elderly.

Avoid Adding to Indoor Pollution

When smoke levels are extremely high outdoors, try your best not to raise indoor pollution. Avoid using anything that burns such as fireplaces and candles. Refrain from cooking food that will smoke, like bacon or fried foods. Do not vacuum as it can stir up the particles already present inside your home. Avoid smoking tobacco or any other products which increase air pollution.

Keep in Contact with a Doctor

If you have any pre-existing lung or heart disease, keep in touch with your doctor about the medicines you need to keep on hand. Also, inquire about the emergency steps to take in case something happens. Do not hesitate to call the doctor if your symptoms begin to worsen.

Get N95 Masks

Do not use simple dust masks for protecting yourself against the smoke. These paper comfort or dust masks are commonly found at most hardware shops and only used against large particles such as sawdust. For protecting your lungs against smoke, buy an N95 mask or better, and wear it properly.

Coping with the Emotional Trauma of Wildfires

If you are under stress due to the recent western wildfires in the U.S., you are not alone. It is completely natural to feel this way during or after a crisis. Both natural and human-caused disasters can create a devastating effect on people. Their lives may be disturbed by trauma such as witnessing a physical injury, property damage, financial burden, or the loss of a home. [6] [7] Anyone who lives through these experiences can suffer damage to their mental health. 

Most of the stress symptoms that you develop are temporary and often go away on their own with time. However, in some people, particularly children and teens, they may last for weeks or even months, sometimes crippling their relationships with others.

Some common warning signs of underlying emotional distress to watch out for are:

  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Change in eating habits
  • Feeling low on energy
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Suffering from unexplained pains and aches, such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Worrying all the time
  • Feeling guilty for no reason
  • Facing difficulty readjusting to work or home life

Helping Adults Through Crisis

It is important to protect the emotional well-being of those exposed to wildfire disasters. Mentioned below are some things to do to encourage better mental health:

  • Use every opportunity to spend time with other people. Try staying more connected with them. A phone call or video chat can go a long way.
  • Take frequent breaks from work, cleaning, or unpleasant activities. 
  • Take part in activities that you truly enjoy.
  • Talk to an adviser or a close friend about your feelings.
  • Express your feelings in a journal.
  • Rely on easy exercises to release stress, but do it indoors because the air quality might be poor outside.
  • Try following healthy dietary patterns.
  • Start practicing good sleep hygiene.
  • Do not rely on harmful substances like marijuana or alcohol to release stress. This can turn out to be counterproductive and may lead to even more stress.

Helping Children Through Crisis

As parents, you must keep an eye on your children and their emotional health. Pay attention to any question that your child raises and reassure them that you are there to listen. Some other tips to keep in mind are:

  • Be honest while answering your child's questions. However, avoid providing more information than necessary.
  • Validate your child's feelings. They might be confused, scared, or even angry.
  • Provide your child with opportunities to talk. Explore all other options for them to express themselves like playing or drawing.
  • Limit their exposure to media.
  • Make sure that your child is eating well, exercising enough, and getting adequate sleep.
  • Avoid making irrational promises such as, "this will not happen again."

Some children may act out, cry more, or develop regressive behavior such as bedwetting. Remember that these are normal responses to stress and are temporary. Reassure your child that you are there for them.

Help Yourself!

The ferocious wildfires in the western U.S. and the havoc they are wreaking are definitely alarming and can damage your physical and mental health. However, in such dire circumstances, consider it your responsibility to protect yourself as well as your family from the physical and emotional effects of this disaster as much as you can. Wear a mask, avoid going outdoors, and be there for one another.

To your health and happiness, Doctor Danielle

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