Anyone who has been living in the Southwest understands the risks we face this summer from wildfires.
Already, many know people whose homes are threatened locally because of extreme fire risk.
From a health perspective, the risk from local fires extends beyond the boundaries of the flames themselves. The smoke from forest fires affects the air quality in our community and, in turn, the health of all of us, especially those with chronic heart and lung diseases.
Chronic lung disease is a diverse group of conditions ranging from asthma to emphysema as well as chronic bronchitis, pulmonary hypertension and other diseases of the respiratory system.
The health effects of environmental smoke exposure vary based upon numerous factors including severity of underlying lung disease, density of particles in the air, presence of noxious gases, physical exertion and overall health status.People with chronic lung diseases and congestive heart failure are at greatest risk from the adverse health effects of poor air quality related to environmental smoke exposure. In addition, the very young and the elderly may be at increased risk.
Strenuous work or athletic activities may increase risk as exertion increases the depth and rate of respiration, which in turn increases respiratory intake of air particles.
Symptoms of smoke exposure may include sore or draining eyes, runny nose, congestion, cough and breathing difficulty. For those unaccustomed to high altitude who have chronic lung or heart disease, poor air quality may compound the effects of lower oxygen levels.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, those at highest risk from environmental smoke exposure, such as sufferers of chronic heart and lung diseases, may experience adverse health effects earlier and at lower smoke levels than healthy persons.
So what can you do if you suffer from cardiopulmonary disease and live in an area affected by smoke from forest fire? Here are some tips.
First, check with your doctor and discuss your health-management plan. For many people, such as those with chronic asthma, use of regular medications and regular home monitoring of breathing symptoms may be all that is needed.
Next, seek to minimize your exposure to fumes and particles from environmental smoke by remaining indoors when conditions warrant because of reduced air quality. Many media and online resources are available that report not only weather conditions but also air quality in your local area.
If you live in an area surrounding a forest fire and suffer from chronic cardiopulmonary disease, the American Lung Association recommends that you refrain from physical exertion, especially if you smell smoke or notice adverse respiratory symptoms.
If you are driving in smoky areas, be sure to keep windows and vents closed, and adjust your car’s air conditioning to the re-circulate mode.
Finally, if you experience adverse breathing or chest symptoms when exposed to environmental smoke – including wheezing, chest tightness, chest pain, breathing difficulty, or severe cough – seek immediate medical attention. Early recognition of smoke-induced cardiopulmonary symptoms may permit more effective medical intervention.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark is a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics practicing at the Ute Mountain Health Center in Towaoc.