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Wildfires, air quality and our health

By The Health News Team | June 13, 2023
Man wearing glasses and mask in smoky air

Canada’s 2023 wildfire season has been the worst in the country’s history. And the smoke from the fires continues to make its way across the border, affecting the air quality for more than 75 million people in the U.S.

While San Diegans haven’t been impacted by the fires to the north, we are very familiar with the effects of wildfires. What’s more, we recognize our own wildfire season isn’t far off.

Dr. Amy Zheng, an urgent care doctor at Sharp Rees-Stealy Downtown, has seen firsthand the health problems fires can cause. “People with sinus and respiratory problems seem to be paying a significant price,” she says.

Here, Dr. Zheng answers seven common questions about fires, air quality and health — and shares how to keep yourself and loved ones safe in the coming months, when local wildfires are a possibility.

How do wildfires affect our health?

There are more particles in the air, such as ash and soot. While the hairs in our nose generally filter the larger particles, the smaller ones can get inside our lungs. These particles can also irritate our eyes, so you may find your eyes feel gritty with a burning sensation. Those with respiratory problems will be more likely to notice symptoms first, although poor air quality can affect anyone.

Who is at risk for increased wildfire-related health issues?

For those with nasal problems — such as sinusitis, allergies or respiratory diseases like asthma or COPD — poor air quality can take its toll. People with heart disease may be affected because the heart and lungs are closely connected, and the smallest change in the oxygen level in the blood can affect how hard the heart has to work. Young children and seniors are also particularly vulnerable.

How can we protect ourselves from smoke-related health issues?

The best thing to do is proactively check the air quality index before leaving the house. The website for San Diego's Air Pollution Control District lets you search by ZIP code and will indicate where the air quality in your area falls on a scale from “good” to “hazardous.” If the scale is orange, people in the sensitive group should stay inside. If it is red, everyone should stay inside.

With an air quality index of “high,” keep your windows and doors closed, and use an indoor air purifier with a HEPA filter, if available. Make sure you change the filter regularly as air purifiers can spread allergens if not cleaned properly. And of course, be smart about fire prevention during these times, such as limiting indoor frying and steering clear of camping and campfires.

Is it safe to exercise outdoors when the air quality is bad?

Again, it depends on where you are on the index. If the index is red, stay indoors. If it’s orange, people in sensitive groups should not be exercising outdoors, but it’s probably OK for everyone else. However, there are so many exercises you can do at home or in a gym that it’s easy to get your workout in without compromising your health.

When should a person feeling the effects of bad air quality seek medical attention?

For anyone experiencing fever, wheezing, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations or chest pain, seek help immediately. Also, seek help if you experience sinus symptoms that do not resolve after a week. The tricky thing about breathing polluted air is that it’s hard to know if your symptoms are related to air quality or to something else. A high air quality index will often cause a recurring pattern of nasal congestion, burning eyes or breathing difficulties.

Are there long-term effects associated with bad air quality?

Yes, long-term effects are well-documented in places such as China. Bad air quality can cause chronic issues, such as bronchitis and asthma. There is also evidence that poor air quality is a contributing factor to lung cancer.

How is the medical community addressing the increase in wildfire-related health issues?

Climate change has caused California to have record-breaking heat waves and, as a result, increased fire dangers. Every year we see hotter days and more extreme fires. In response, the medical community has established a new branch of medicine called climate medicine, which focuses on how climate change affects our health and well-being.

San Diego’s wildfire season is expected to be delayed this year. But recent growth from rains may lead to bigger — and more — fires when the weather shifts to hot, dry summer days.

“Unfortunately, this is not an issue that will be going away,” Dr. Zheng says.

Learn more about family medicine; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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