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Monday Medical: Tips for staying healthy through wildfire season

Monday Medical

Itchy eyes and a runny nose? Don't just assume it's seasonal allergies. Wildfire smoke can also cause a range of symptoms, such as coughing, a scratchy throat and fatigue.

With several wildfires burning around the state, including the Mill Creek Fire northeast of Hayden, the Peekaboo Fire west of Craig and the Peak 2 fire near Breckenridge, it's good to be aware of the health hazards of wildfire smoke. Below are recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for staying healthy through this summer's fire season.

What's in smoke and how is it harmful?

Wildfire smoke contains a mix of gases and tiny particles that come from the burning trees, plant material and other things that are fueling the fire, such as building materials.

According to the CDC, wildfire smoke can pose a risk for anyone. Those most at risk include the elderly, pregnant women and people with chronic respiratory and heart conditions. Children are also at a higher risk as they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults, and wildfire smoke can irritate their still-developing lungs.

Wildfire smoke can sting your eyes and irritate your throat and lungs, resulting in coughing, wheezing or even an asthma attack or bronchitis. It can cause unexpected symptoms such as chest pain, a rapid heart beat, headaches, a runny nose and fatigue.

How can I stay safe?

Seeing haze and smelling smoke are signs that wildfire smoke is in the area. You may also want to check out local air quality reports, such as the Colorado Department of Public Health's smoke outlook for the state.

Changing weather conditions can quickly increase or lessen your exposure to wildfire smoke, so it's good to keep an eye on the sky.

If wildfire smoke is present, the CDC recommends the following:

• Limit exposure to smoke. That might mean staying indoors and keeping your indoor air as clean as possible by closing doors and windows, and turning off fresh-air intakes. An indoor air filter that removes fine particles can also help protect people most at risk.

• Pay attention to public health messages. If you're told to stay indoors, do so and follow the steps above to keep your indoor air clean. If it's too hot to keep doors and windows closed and you don't have an air conditioner, you should seek shelter elsewhere. And if you are told to evacuate, leave as quickly as possible.

• Consider reducing physical activity. During exercise, people can breathe up to 10 or 20 times more air than when resting. That higher breathing rate brings more smoke deep into the lungs. And if you're breathing through your mouth, you're bypassing the natural air filter of your nose, further increasing your exposure to the smoke.

• Don't add to your indoor pollution by burning candles or smoking, and keep that vacuum cleaner in the closet, as vacuuming stirs up particles already in the home.

• Don't rely on a dust mask to protect your lungs – the paper masks typically found at hardware stores trap large particles, not the very fine ones present in smoke. And dust masks can actually retain the harmful particles from smoke.

• If you have asthma or lung disease, talk with your doctor about how best to navigate wildfire season. And if you start to experience symptoms of smoke exposure, don't hesitate to see your doctor.

Take the proper steps to protect your health this wildfire season. And of course, it doesn't hurt to hope for rain.

This article references resources from cdc.gov and epa.gov. For the Colorado air quality index and smoke warnings, see colorado.gov/airquality.

Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.