“When your (forests) on fire / You must realize / Smoke gets in your eyes” *
Fire and smoke season is upon us again, with orangey skies in the morning and red sunsets at night. I’m frequently asked what people should do about the smoke. The answer, unfortunately, is that the only effective thing you can do is get away from it. That means staying inside in air conditioning when possible, with the windows closed. If you must be outside, especially working, try to do it in early in the day when the smoke is less severe. The people most at risk are those who have lung problems such as asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis, and anyone who is on oxygen. People with poorly controlled heart failure should be more careful, too. Children are also at higher risk because their lungs and airways aren’t fully developed yet and they breathe a lot more air relative to their size than grownups do.
Masks? The little blue paper “dust” masks you commonly see are useless for smoke. They are good for keeping large particles, such as sawdust, out of your airways, but they do not block the tiny particles which make up the harmful smoke. A heavier mask labelled “N-95” or “N-100” will help. These masks have two straps for above and below your ears and fit snugly over your nose and mouth. Please adjust your mask before helping others. They may be hard to breathe through, especially for people with breathing problems, but they work.
Heavy smoke causes dry, scratchy eyes and throats. The answer is drinking lots of water to keep your throat wet and using moisturizing drops as needed for your eyes.
How bad is the smoke? The current air quality index (AQI) can be found at airnow.gov, where you can search by Zip Code to find the local conditions. The AQI is reported in the Daily Courier and on the TV weather as well. If the number is above 150 the air is considered unhealthy, above 200 is pretty bad. As I write this at noon on Friday, July 26th, the AQI is 153 and predicted to peak at 180 today. By comparison, our AQI in Grants Pass is usually in the single digits. Beijing often hits 500.
In summary, if the smoke is bothering you, get into clean air, just like moving to the other side of the campfire. If you can get away, the coast is always nice. And of course, don’t make it worse by smoking cigarettes. They’re way worse than any forest fire smoke.
by Spencer Countiss, MD
* Quote adapted from “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters, with my apologies.