How to Protect Your Lungs and your Health in Smoky Conditions

November 14, 2018


Multiple fires in Northern California continue to cause high levels of airborne particulate matter throughout the region, including Stanislaus County. Because the fires remain active and there is no rain or cleansing winds in the short-term weather forecast, these conditions, while continuously variable, are expected to remain in place for several days.

This morning, the fine particulate matter index, as measured in Turlock, reached Level 5, which prompted a warning for everyone to avoid outdoor activity if possible. Even when the level of particulate matter decreases, it doesn’t mean the risks from breathing the air are gone. Generally, if you can see or smell smoke, you are being impacted.

The levels of outdoor risk include:

  • Level 1: Good
  • Level 2: Moderate
  • Level 3: Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
  • Level 4: Unhealthy
  • Level 5: Very Unhealthy

Fine particulate matter in the air can cause burning eyes, coughing, runny nose, scratchy throat, headaches and sinus discomfort. If you need to be outdoors for prolonged periods in these conditions, the wearing of an N-95 particulate respirator is highly suggested to protect your lungs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offer the following eight tips for protecting yourself when wildfire smoke is present:

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports. When a wildfire occurs in your area, watch for news or health warnings about smoke. Pay attention to public health messages and take extra safety measures such as avoiding spending time outdoors.
  • Pay attention to visibility guides if they are available. Although not every community measures the amount of particles in the air, some communities in the western United States have guidelines to help people estimate air quality based on how far they can see.
  • If you are told to stay indoors, stay indoors and keep your indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed unless it is very hot outside. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Seek shelter elsewhere if you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed.
  • Use an air filter. Use a freestanding indoor air filter with particle removal to help protect people with heart disease, asthma or other respiratory conditions and the elderly and children from the effects of wildfire smoke. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on filter replacement and where to place the device.
  • Do not add to indoor pollution. When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles and fireplaces. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke tobacco or other products, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
  • Follow your doctor’s advice about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease or cardiovascular disease. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
  • Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection.
  • Avoid smoke exposure during outdoor recreation. Wildfires and prescribed burns—fires that are set on purpose to manage land—can create smoky conditions. Before you travel to a park or forest, check to see if any wildfires are happening or if any prescribed burns are planned.