How smoke from the Canadian wildfires affects your health?

How smoke from the Canadian wildfires affects your health?

Experts answer some of our frequently asked questions.

Smoke from Canadian wildfires triggered air quality alerts in more than a dozen US states on Wednesday, with health officials warning people in vulnerable groups, such as children, the elderly, or those with respiratory illnesses, to limit their time outdoors or stay indoors. 

Yahoo News spoke with health experts who explained how wildfire smoke affects your health, what you can do to protect yourself, and how long the effects of the thick orange haze that blankets much of the country will last.

How do I check the air quality in my area?

People in Queens, New York, wear protective masks as haze and smoke from Canadian wildfires blanketed the Manhattan skyline on Wednesday. 

"The US air quality index is getting a lot of media attention right now, but it's cool," says Dr. Brady Scott, a fellow with the American Association for Respiratory Care. "Because you can just plug in your zip code and understand the air quality where you are. If it's green or yellow, that's fine for most individuals. When it's orange, there is concern that some people, especially those with systemic diseases and Respiratory systems, might be affected. When you're in the red and certainly when we're in the purple or burgundy areas, even if you're one of the so-called healthy people."

Well, it says I'm in an area under an air quality warning. I can see and smell smoke. What should be my primary health concerns?

"The levels of particulate matter are so high that even for a normal person without any underlying medical conditions, they can still be unhealthy and dangerous if there is long-term exposure," says Dr. Purvi Parikh of the Allergy and Asthma Network. "The longer you are exposed to it, the greater the chance it will cause problems. And what happens with smoke is these fine particles can get deeper into your lungs, and these particles contain chemicals, pollution, and carbon monoxide that can damage your lungs. So over time, It can cause inflammation in you. And for some individuals, if you're constantly exposed, it can turn into conditions like asthma."

What is considered long-term exposure? A few hours?

"Yes. But like everything in medicine, it depends on the individual and your underlying health condition," says Parikh. "So if you're healthy, a few hours of wearing a mask should be fine, without long-term consequences. But if you're exercising outside or pregnant or an elderly person with heart disease or Lung disease or someone with an underlying lung or immune condition, I would try to limit that exposure as much as possible."

Is wildfire smoke aggravating my allergies the past few days?

"Absolutely," Parikh says. "It can make your allergies worse because it amplifies them, which causes more inflammation, so your symptoms worsen. It makes your eyes burn, and your skin itches more. Same with coughing — more coughing, more wheezing, more wheezing." Asthma attacks. And if you have sinus allergies, this can worsen it because that's the first port of entry for wildfire smoke - through your nose."

Officials encourage people, especially children or those with underlying conditions such as asthma, to limit outdoor activities or stay home. What if I have to go out? Should I wear a mask?

"The best thing to do is check the air quality, and if it's an unhealthy level and you can stay indoors, that's the best thing to do," Parikh says. "But if you have to go outside, we recommend wearing a mask to limit exposure. Medical-grade N95 or KN95 masks are best, similar to COVID times, because they reduce some particles getting into your lungs. But even a surgical cover or any barrier is useful ".

I read somewhere that although N95s can protect against fine particulate matter, they don't protect against the dangerous gases in wildfire smoke. Is this correct?

"It's true; we're likely getting some gas," Parikh says. "With this N95 mask, you can't filter everything out. You see how foggy it is in New York City; you can't see the buildings down the street. That's why, even with a mask on, we recommend limiting your time outdoors as much as possible."

What about pets?

A person walks dogs through hazy smoke from wildfires in Canada

Dog walking in New York City on Wednesday. "Absolutely," Parikh says. Pets are also at risk because they suffer from many lung diseases like humans. So, of course, they are in danger too."

"I would be concerned about a pet being outside for long periods or having them do a lot of hard exercises or running around," says Scott. "They are breathing the same air that we are, and that can irritate their airways and cause them to have trouble breathing, too."

How long will our exposure last?

"One of the challenges with wildfire smoke is that it depends on atmospheric conditions — the way winds carry smoke or rain into the forecast," says William Barrett, senior national director for clean air advocacy at the American Lung Association. "The main concern of wildfire smoke exposure is that particulate matter pollution can persist for long periods, often requiring changes in wind or precipitation patterns to bring them down, moving from the area. This carries wildfire smoke into the community and will eventually expel it ".

When the smoke clears, what should people who still have symptoms do?

"Let's say once the air quality returns to safe levels and you notice that you're still experiencing any symptoms after a week or two, you should be seen by a doctor," Parikh says. "Because what happens sometimes is exposure can weaken your lungs, weaken your sinuses, and then set you up for allergies or leave behind an infection."

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