How inhaling wildfire smoke can wreak havoc on your health

Fueled by the tremendous threat of wildfires raging in parts of the United States each year is the growing concern for adverse health effects resulting from smoke exposure.

From January to October 2017, more than 50,200 wildfires devastated 8.5 million acres in the U.S., compared to more than 46,600 wildfires and 4.8 million acres burned in the same time frame in 2016, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

Experts believe climate change with drier and hotter conditions will exacerbate the upsurge in wildfires. The smoke can pose serious health threats ranging from irritated eyes to heart and lung problems.

Researchers who examined the health impacts of U.S. wildfires from 2008 to 2012 found that up to 8,500 people are sent to the hospital with smoke-related respiratory issues annually.

More than 2,000 people each year succumb to the effects of wildfire air pollution, research shows.

"Anytime you talk about smoke inhalation, it's a potentially a life-threatening situation," said Dr. Andrew Ordon, an ENT specialist, general surgeon and co-host of "The Doctors."

"If you inhale too much smoke, it can lead to respiratory failure and you're not exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide the way you're supposed to," Ordon said.


(Photo/mack2happy/Getty Images)

When the result of burning trees and grass is inhaled, a person is breathing in more than just smoke and ashes.

Toxins and fumes are added to the harmful mix when other things burn, like plastic from house fires.

"If you're close to the fire, you'll be exposed to carbon monoxide, which poisons your red blood cells and interferes with oxygen uptake, [as well as] nitrogen dioxide, which dissolves in the airway lining fluid to generate a powerful acid that hurts small airways," said Dr. Brian Christman, a volunteer spokesperson for the American Lung Association.

Of particular concern is the inhalation of tiny particles about 2.5 micrometers in diameter and about 1/20th the width of a human hair, Christman said.

"These are small enough to be carried into the alveoli, the tiny air sacs of the lung," he said.

This can significantly increase the risk of stroke and heart attack.

Health impacts

Wildfire smoke can cause or worsen a number of health problems, including reduced lung function, infectious bronchitis, asthma and heart failure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"When you're breathing things in, before they get to the lungs, you're affecting all of your upper airways - your nasal cavity, oral cavity, throat and vocal cords," Ordon said.

Sinus trouble and increased cough can also occur. Children, the elderly and people with certain pre-existing conditions, including congestive heart failure, cystic fibrosis and allergic rhinitis, are particularly at risk.

"If somebody has underlying respiratory problems, like asthma, emphysema, COPD and if you're a smoker, these people get into trouble quickly because they already have a compromised respiratory and pulmonary function," Ordon said.

Recognizing the symptoms

Wildfire smoke's impacts on the human body can present themselves in a number of ways and can lead to chronic health issues.

"Look for changes in your voice and burning in the nasal cavity, the mouth and the throat, which would indicate that you are getting exposure that is irritating the lining of your airway," Ordon said.

Other symptoms include headache, eye irritation, chest pain, sore throat, runny nose and shortness of breath.

Those with heart disease and respiratory issues will likely experience worsening symptoms including tiredness, coughing or wheezing.

Experts advise anyone experiencing such symptoms to seek immediate medical attention.

How to stay safe

To minimize the threat of wildfire smoke, it is recommended that those in impacted areas remain inside with doors and windows shut to keep the polluted air outside.

Drivers are also advised to keep windows closed and set the air conditioning to recirculate mode.

Wearing the appropriate mask is crucial, because not all masks will prevent wildfire smoke inhalation.

"There are a lot of good, high-quality masks available," Ordon said. "Make sure that it's one that is high grade and has a rating system that will keep the majority of particles and smoke filtered out."

Appropriate masks include N95 or P1000 disposable particulate respirators, and dust masks are not recommended.

Keeping an eye on local air quality reports and using an air filter in your home will also help reduce the risk of smoke exposure.

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