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What Impact Does Exposure to Wildfire Smoke Have on People with Allergies and Asthma?

Wildfires — fires that burn in wildlands like grasslands or forests — have been increasing in frequency in recent decades. Ignited by natural phenomena like lightning strikes or by people, these fires can spread rapidly as they consume everything around them. Because they are extremely hard to extinguish, wildfires can burn for a long time. Not only can wildfires result in the loss of human life, as many as 4.5 million properties in the United States are considered to be at high risk of being damaged or lost in a wildfire.

California, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, and Idaho face the biggest wildfire risk, but other states can be impacted, too. Whether a wildfire is currently going on in your region or you live in a place that has faced wildfires in the past, you would be right to be concerned about the potential health impact of wildfire smoke. People with preexisting allergies and asthma are particularly vulnerable. How does exposure to wildfire smoke affect these groups, and what other big environmental threats do they face?

What Types of Pollutants are Present in Wildfire Smoke?

Wildfire smoke primarily results from burning vegetation and other organic matter, but as larger areas are affected, man-made structures will burn, too. The smoke you are exposed to when a wildfire rages in your area contains numerous different pollutants, and among them are:

  • Particulate matter diverse in size. You will be able to see the larger particles with the naked eye — in the form of visible smoke. The microscopic particles known as fine and ultra-fine particles linger for longer, on the other hand, and are able to penetrate your airways more easily. Once there, they can lead to both acute and chronic health concerns.
  • Noxious gases that arise as organic matter, often exposed to pesticides, burns, along with processed materials such as tires and fuel. These gases, many of which are recognized as Volatile Organic Compounds, can have a severe negative impact on your health.

How Does Wildfire Smoke Inhalation Impact People with Asthma and Allergies?

Inhaling wildfire smoke poses a risk for anyone, regardless of preexisting medical conditions. If you are very close to a wildfire, you will notice symptoms such as burning and irritated eyes, a persistent cough, breathing difficulties, a runny nose, and increased mucus production even if you are in top condition. These symptoms set in as your body fights hard to eliminate the wildfire smoke.

People who do have preexisting health conditions are, however, more vulnerable to the effects of wildfire smoke. That means that they are likely to react much more strongly when they are close to a wildfire, but also that they may suffer the effects of wildfire smoke inhalation when they are exposed to smaller concentrations, further away from the site where the wildfire is raging, especially when the wind blows the smoke in their direction.

People with asthma or allergies are more likely to develop severe breathing difficulties much more quickly when they are exposed to wildfire smoke. An intense asthma attack can occur when someone with asthma is exposed to wildfire smoke, necessitating immediate medical attention.

Those who have preexisting pulmonary conditions — which in addition to asthma and allergies would include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema and bronchitis) — are not the only groups vulnerable to the effects of wildfire smoke, however. People with heart conditions, young children, elderly people, pregnant women, and anyone else with a compromised immune system, may also react more strongly and more quickly.

Because of this, vulnerable people who live in areas that are often affected by wildfires would be wise to make a plan with their healthcare providers ahead of wildfire season. In extreme conditions, they may even consider moving to an area that has a lower risk of wildfires.

What Can You Do To Protect Yourself Against Wildfire Smoke Inhalation?

Is a wildfire currently threatening your neighborhood? The first thing you should do is pay close attention to your local news and any announcements your fire department is putting out. Follow instructions, and evacuate if that becomes necessary. If you belong to a vulnerable group, for instance because you have asthma or allergies, you could also contact your doctor to seek their advice about evacuating, even if the general population has not been told to vacate their homes.

Anyone who lives in an area with an active wildfire should always:

  • Limit the amount of time they spend outdoors to essential activities, such as grocery shopping or seeking medical care.
  • Close the windows to reduce the amount of wildfire smoke that is able to enter your home.
  • Have a good amount of high-quality respirators, like N95 masks, available. Surgical masks do not filter out wildfire smoke, but N95 masks will. Whenever you do venture outside, wear one and make sure that it fits correctly.

In addition, anyone who lives in an area where wildfires tend to occur should strongly consider investing in a true HEPA air purifier designed to meet the needs of their home. These air purifying systems are able to filter out more than 99 percent of airborne particles, including fine dust.

Not only will having a true HEPA air purifier in your home (or in every room) reduce the health impact of any wildfire smoke that does enter your home, it also lowers your exposure to indoor air pollutants that originate from within your own home. Volatile Organic Compounds, household dust and dust mites, pet dander, and mold spores are all major threats to your indoor air quality. When you are spending almost all of your time indoors as a result of an active wildfire, you want to ensure that the air you breathe in is as clean as possible.

What Should You Do to Protect Your Health After a Wildfire?

When a wildfire finally stops smoldering, you will want to get back to business as usual as soon as possible — but first, you will have to clean up. Even if your home was not directly impacted by the fire, wildfires leave significant amounts of hazardous ash in their wake. Wear protective gear, including an N95 respirator, as you clean up, to make sure you don’t inhale the ash that may have built up within your home.

If your home was caught up in the wildfire and firefighters were active in your immediate area, your home may also have sustained water damage. Mold infestations are very common following acts of nature, when your home may have been subject to flooding and condensation. You may be able to see mold growth within your home, or you might smell the characteristic musty odor that lets you know that mold is likely present. Even if you don’t, however, any home that was exposed to water — including due to brave actions on the part of your local fire department — is at high risk of new mold growth.

Mold, too, has the potential to cause significant complications in people with asthma and allergies. You may believe that you have completed your cleanup, only to continue suffering the same symptoms you felt when you were actively exposed to wildfire smoke. Mold is, sometimes, the culprit. To find out whether you have a mold problem, or to discover out what kinds of molds are present in your home, having an independent mold inspection carried out in your home is an excellent step.

MI&T can, as a nationwide mold inspection only company, help you get to the bottom of your problem. Our highly-trained mold inspectors can identify sources of mold in hidden places that homeowners often miss, but the air samples we take when we come into your come will let you know the precise extent of any mold infestation as well. After a disaster in which your property was exposed to wet and humid conditions, taking this step offers peace of mind — especially when you have asthma or allergies. The advantage of hiring an independent mold inspection only company lies in the fact that we will not attempt to sell you expensive mold remediation services if you do not need them; MI&T merely tells you whether mold is present in your home, and if so, what types and in what concentrations. You will then be able to take the appropriate steps to remediate a mold infestation.

Wildfires can be traumatic and costly events, and it is no surprise that you will want to move on as soon as possible. Before you do, however, you will want to make sure that your home is now a safe place in which you can breathe clean and healthy air.