How to protect yourself and others from all that smoke

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. - With wildfires raging in the mountains above Palm Springs, Desert Regional Medical Center offered the following information and health tips.

"People with lung conditions may be severely affected by the smoke and fine ash in the air and need to do everything they can avoid exposure as much as possible," said respiratory therapist Tina Louise Moreno, coordinator of pulmonary rehab at Desert Regional Medical Center. "We've been receiving many calls from our patients who are having great difficulty already."

Heavy smoke from a wildfire or can cause a number of health problems. That's because smoke contains harmful gases and fine particles that can irritate the lungs. When you breathe smoky air, you are inhaling carbon dioxide (CO2) and carbon monoxide (CO) plus gases like formaldehyde, depending on what is burning.

While exposure to smoke can affect everyone, certain groups are more sensitive. These include older adults, pregnant women, and anyone with heart or lung problems. Children are at increased risk because their airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than an adult. Children also are more likely to be playing outdoors where they are exposed to smoke and ash.

Some of the initial symptoms of smoke exposure may include:

    Watery, itchy eyes
    Scratchy throat
    Shortness of breath
    Runny nose
    Chest pain or difficulty breathing

Those with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary (lung) disease (COPD) may find that their symptoms are worse when it's smoky outside. Heart patients may experience chest pain, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and fatigue.

Patients with lung or heart disease should contact their doctors to see if they need to adjust their medications to compensate for the smoke. If you or your child uses a rescue inhaler for wheezing, follow your doctor's instructions concerning how to use it when your symptoms are worse. Patients who use oxygen should not increase their oxygen intake without consulting with their doctor.

Call your doctor if you develop a persistent cough or painful, difficult breathing. These symptoms may not appear until 24 to 48 hours after smoke exposure and may indicate a serious health condition.

You can take steps to protect yourself and your family from outdoor smoke exposure.

Check for reports on the air quality or health warnings about smoke in your area. Local news and weather stations have this information.

Stay inside as much as possible with the doors, windows and fireplace dampers closed. Children should play inside while smoke is in the area.

Use your air conditioner with the fresh-air intake turned off. You also should check to see that your air conditioner filters are clean so they catch more of the fine particles that are in the air.

If you purchase an air filtration unit, make sure it is correctly sized for the area where it will be used. Units that have ozone-generating filters may produce dangerous levels of ozone and are not recommended.

Air humidifiers can keep the air moist but don't keep you from inhaling particles. If the relative humidity is low, which often occurs during wildfire season, you may want to use a humidifier, especially if you notice that your nose and throat feel dry.

Dust masks like the ones you see at the hardware store won't protect you from the fine particles in smoke. An N95 mask that has been properly fitted and worn correctly may provide some protection. However, people with a respiratory condition should check with their doctors to see if they should wear a mask. Also, even the smallest size of N95 mask is not designed to fit children. If you feel your child needs a mask, the best thing to do is get them to an area where smoke is not a problem.

When you're out in your car, keep the air conditioner set to re-circulate the air instead of pulling air in from the outside. If the smoke is heavy in your area, you can temporarily use a wet cloth to cover your mouth and nose while going to your car. This will help filter out particles when you breathe.

Dust particles including ash may get on surfaces inside your home. Use a moistened cloth to clean them from surfaces.

Remember no matter how well you filter out the particles from the smoke, the deadly carbon monoxide gas will still be there.

Breathing smoke can affect your ability to think and to perform simple tasks.  Stay out of it.

If there is ash outside your home, take these steps:

Don't allow children to play in the ash. Ash can irritate the skin, nose and throat. Ash in the air can cause coughing.

Wear gloves, heavy-soled shoes, a long-sleeved shirt and long pants when you clean up ash in your yard.

Spray the area you are going to clean with water to keep the ash from flying in the air. Don't use a leaf blower or shop vacuum to clean up ash.

Watch for embers or hot spots. These could spark a new fire and must be wet down completely.

Be sure to thoroughly wash any home-grown fruits and vegetables that have been exposed to ash before you serve them.

If your area has heavy smoke, you may want to consider evacuating to a safer location with cleaner air. Call a friend or family member and see if your family can stay with them.

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