Asthma in the Time of Wildfires

Asthma is no walk in the park at the best of times. Even normal summer humidity, stagnant air, thunderstorms, pollen, and mold can exacerbate asthma symptoms, but this year isn’t exactly normal. In Canada, the wildfire season got an early start and has been especially severe. As of July 6, 2023, Natural Resources Canada announced that “due to long-range forecasts for warm temperatures and ongoing drought” there will be “continued potential for higher-than-normal fire activity.” That means we’ll continue to see cold fronts sweeping down from Canada and pulling smoke from wildfires into the Northeast. At times, the smoke will sink towards the ground. That’s when it affects air quality the most.

When the air quality is poor, patients with asthma, COPD, or other breathing conditions need to be particularly careful. A few years ago, we outlined some ways that patients can prepare for extreme weather by making an action plan and emergency kit. Now let’s learn more ways to keep yourself breathing easy.

Be air aware

Learn about air conditions near you using the AirNow website or check your favorite weather news source. If the air quality index (AQI) is 50 or lower, that’s great! Pollution is low. But if the AQI is 101 or higher, that means the air is unhealthy for sensitive groups. Also check the PM2.5 level, which indicates how much particulate matter is in the air. The “2.5” refers to the size of the particles. At 2.5 micrometers or smaller, these particles are about 24 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Particles at that size can lodge themselves deep within your lungs and enter the bloodstream.

On bad air days, avoid strenuous activities outdoors whenever possible. Don’t go for a run or do other activities that cause you to breathe hard. This is especially important between the hours of 11 AM and 8 PM, when air quality tends to be worse. Consider using services like ScriptDrop to get your essentials delivered to your home.

Try not to add to the poor air quality, either. Avoid mowing the lawn, letting vehicles idle, using fireworks, or having campfires.

Use masks

Of course, we can’t all avoid going outside, especially when smoky conditions persist for days or weeks. In that case, mask up! The same N95 masks that you’ve used to protect yourself from COVID-19 are the lowest level of protection you should use for poor air quality. While cloth or surgical masks are better than nothing, they can’t protect you from PM2.5 pollution.

Disposable respirator masks are an affordable option that are often available at hardware stores and online. Note that masks with exhalation valves are more comfortable to wear for longer periods of time and won’t fog up glasses. Reusable respirators are more expensive and filters have to be purchased separately, but they are extremely effective at filtering particulate matter. The CDC has a full list of NIOSH-approved masks that can keep you safe.

Pay attention to the fit of your masks, as well. Masks and respirators work best when they make a tight seal with the skin of your face. That means anything that interferes with the seal, like facial hair (including stubble), facial surgery, certain piercings, and even scars could make the mask less effective. In these cases, you could use a full-face respirator or a powered air-purified respirator (PAPR) instead, although these are a considerably more expensive option.

Be mindful of indoor air

Whether you go outside or stay in, think about your indoor air quality too.

  • Keep doors and windows closed.
  • Shower and wipe down pets after outdoor activities to remove pollen, mold spores, and other particulate matter. You don’t want to transfer those particles to furniture or bedding.
  • Avoid burning candles or using air fresheners. They might smell good, but they add pollution to indoor air that can trigger asthma attacks.
  • Check for mold in bathrooms, basements, and attics.
  • Don’t overwater your houseplants! While plants can act as natural air filters, wet soil can allow mold to flourish.
  • Squash any cockroaches (or use bait and traps). Cockroaches are an allergen for many people.

Consider investing in a good air filtering appliance for your home. Note that “good” doesn’t have to mean “expensive.” At the very least, choose air purifiers with high efficiency particulate (HEPA) filters. Purifiers with carbon filters will also reduce odors. Be sure to check the price of replacement filters and how often those filters need to be changed.

If an air purifier isn’t in your budget, you can build your own with a box fan and furnace filters.

Don’t run these DIY air purifiers when you aren’t home, as they are more likely to overheat.

Looking ahead

So far, the American wildfire season has been quiet thanks to cooler, wetter weather in the Western half of the country. However, as grasslands and forests dry out and temperatures rise, the risk of fire in the Southwest and Pacific Northwest will increase. Obviously, such fires would impact vast numbers of Americans who suffer from asthma or other breathing conditions.

Even without our own fires, the Canadian wildfire smoke and our typical summer weather can make it hard to breathe comfortably. Continue taking your asthma or COPD medications, stay indoors when the air quality is poor, and keep yourself safe this summer.