Wildfires: How to Protect Your Lung Health

September 18, 2020 11:57 AM

U-M expert offers advice for living with air quality in the hazardous range

Mature forest on fire

So far this year, large wildfires have burned more than four million acres of land throughout several western states, including Oregon, California and Washington. Smoke from these fires has traveled all the way to Michigan and beyond, casting a hazy pall over the sky. With the official Air Quality Index near the fires hovering in the “very unhealthy” range, residents are being warned to stay indoors—a request that is made even more difficult by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

 MeiLan Han, M.D., a U-M pulmonologist and spokesperson for the American Lung Association, discusses what this means and how people can cut down on their risk for illness:

What does breathing “very unhealthy” air do to the lungs?

For patients with lung diseases such as asthma or COPD, air pollution can make it immediately hard to breathe. For children and teenagers, air pollution can impact lung development. For individuals with cardiovascular disease, particle pollution can actually increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

How can people protect themselves when the air quality is dangerous?

As exposures can occur outside, at work and at home, measures to protect oneself must also address outdoor and indoor air pollution. Right now, outdoor air pollution from wildfires has become a national concern. If air pollution is high outside, avoid exercising outdoors. While wearing a cloth mask may help reduce the spread of COVID-19, unfortunately it does not protect against pollutants in wildfire smoke. These particles are so small they can not only enter your respiratory tract but also enter your bloodstream to cause damage there.

Before the pandemic, we recommended wearing an N-95 mask where exposure was unavoidable. However, currently N-95 masks are in short supply and are being reserved for healthcare workers. Hence the best protection for outdoor air pollution is to stay indoors. Air cleaning devices that have HEPA filters can provide added protection from soot and smoke. Limit the amount of time spent outside if possible when the Air Quality Index is high.

MeiLan Han, M.D.
"While wearing a cloth mask may help reduce the spread of COVID-19, unfortunately it does not protect against pollutants in wildfire smoke. "
MeiLan Han, M.D.

Could the poor air quality contribute to susceptibility to COVID-19?

Wildfire smoke causes air pollution that can increase lung inflammation. The scientific community has theoretical concerns that inflammation caused by wildfire smoke could increase susceptibility or severity of COVID-19 infection. During this time period, try limiting your outdoor exposure, seeking shelter in buildings with central air conditioning with medium or high efficiency filtration and/or using a portable air cleaner in one or more rooms in your house.

People at increased risk from harmful effects of smoke include pregnant women, children, older adults and those with chronic health conditions or who are immunocompromised. N95 respirators do provide protection against wildfire smoke, but may be in short supply due to the need for this equipment by frontline healthcare workers. Additional resources on protecting your air quality can be found on the American Lung Association and Centers for Disease Control websites.

What symptoms, if present, would you suggest people seek medical help for when air quality is poor?

Anyone who is experiencing significant respiratory difficulties should seek immediate medical attention. In patients without underlying lung disease, new shortness of breath particularly combined with either fever or new loss of taste or smell raises concerns for possible COVID-19 infection.