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Tips For Those at Respiratory Risk During Wildfire Season

Posted on May 01, 2017

Air pollution from wildfires has no boundaries and can have a major impact on small children, the elderly and anyone with lung or respiratory problems.

In April, May and June in Florida, the winds die down, the air stagnates and the ozone builds up—mix this in with an especially hot and dry spell and you have an ideal environment for wildfires. Even worse, smoke and ash from large wildfires can travel hundreds of miles from where the fire originally started. That means if a wildfire breaks out several counties over, the residual smoke can still threaten your health.

The experts at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital keep an eye on the risk factors.

“In previous seasons, we have seen a rise in respiratory patients due to wildfire pollutants,” says Tony Kriseman, M.D., pulmonologist at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. “When wildfires are especially large in one area—say Georgia, for example—the smoke can spread from Georgia to Florida.”

With wildfire outbreaks throughout the state of Florida, families should know how to protect themselves from wildfire smoke, even if you don’t live near a wooded area.

“There are many precautions families can take when wildfires threaten your area,” Kriseman adds. “One is understanding the dangers of wildfire smoke.”

Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gasses and fine particles from burning trees and other materials. The biggest health threat is from these tiny particles. How tiny? Many of them are about 30 times smaller than the width of a strand of hair. When breathed in, these particle pollutants trigger existing respiratory conditions, especially asthma.

“Exposure to wildfire pollutants can worsen existing respiratory diseases such as asthma, or increase the risk of respiratory problems,” Kriseman says.

Although you can’t control wildfire smoke from reaching your community, there are ways to protect your family and home from particle pollutants. Take precautions to decrease risks from wildfire smoke by following these safety tips from the experts at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.

Check Local Air Quality and Weather Reports

Local reports are often the best place to start when seeking wildfire information in your area. Listen, read and watch for news or health warnings about smoke, heat and high winds. High winds can carry wildfire smoke into your region. For this reason, you don’t have to be in the direct path of a wildfire to be affected by the smoke. Also, see if your community provides reports about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index.

Create Emergency and Evacuation Plans

Your wildfire action plan should be prepared and familiar to all family members. Make and practice your evacuation plan that includes a meeting location, communication plan and pet accommodations—including large animals such as horses or other livestock. You should also create an emergency bag of items you would need if you had to leave your home.

Keep Indoor Air as Clean as Possible

If you are advised to stay indoors, you should keep your air quality as good as possible. Change your air filters frequently and keep your windows and doors closed to keep outdoor pollutants from getting inside. Don’t smoke indoors or use candles, fireplaces or gas stoves. Avoid vacuuming since this stirs up particles in your home. If your child does have allergies, keep pets away while pollutants are high.

Follow the Advice of Your Health Care Provider

If you or your child has asthma or another lung disease, talk to your health care provider about your respiratory management plan. If wildfire smoke is in your community and you or your child has trouble breathing, consider evacuating the area until the smoke has cleared. Remember to call your health care provider for further advice if respiratory symptoms from wildfire smoke persist.

Don’t Rely on Dust Masks for Respiratory Protection

Paper masks found at drug stores are designed to trap large particles such as wood shavings or sawdust. These masks will not protect against the tiny particles found in wildfire smoke.

Prevent Wildfires From Starting

The majority of wildfires are traced back to human causes. For this reason, it is important to comply with local regulations if you plan to burn trash or a fire of any kind in your yard. Keep an area of up to 100 feet around your home clean and green, and remember to clean your roof, deck and gutters of dead leaves and pine needles.

To learn more about respiratory management and how to reduce the rate of asthma in children, visit Johns Hopkins All Children’s Pediatric Pulmonology program.

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