Over the past few summers, a new pattern has risen over on the West Coast: an increase in wildfires. Naturally, there will always be the threat of wildfire when the landscape becomes dry, but lately there have been more fires, which leads to more exposure to wildfire smoke.
When the air becomes so thick with smoke, the obvious question is how does wildfire smoke effect your health. As we become more exposed to smoke in the air, we should learn the best ways to protect your health from the wildfire smoke.
You can check the wildfire air quality where you live by entering your zip code on this website.
1. How to Protect Your Lungs From Wildfire Smoke
One of the questions I get asked the most during wildfire season is the impact the smoke has on our lungs. The lungs provide the body with clean oxygen to help run every single process in the body, but when the air is contaminated with smoke, the lungs and respiratory system has to filter the air to make it usable.
This can lead to an increase in respiratory issues such as:
- Shortness of breath
- Lung infections
When the smoke sticks around for days, or even weeks at a time, it is very difficult to completely avoid breathing in the smoky air. Below are some ways to help clear the smoke and ash particles from the respiratory system.
Use Herbal Support To Clean and Repair the Lungs and Respiratory System
For many years, different cultures have used herbs as a way to protect and repair the lungs. In a lot of cases, people will develop congestion or mucus buildup in their respiratory system from the exposure to wildfire smoke. Some of the herbs below are considered expectorants which helps to loosen up the mucus layers so you can cough it up.
Eucalyptus is actually a common ingredient in many cough lozenges and syrups because of a constituent called cineole. Cineole is an expectorant, can help ease a cough, fights congestion buildup, and soothes any irritated sinus passages such as the throat. It is a fantastic herb to support your respiratory system during the wildfire season.
Peppermint has been used for a long time to soothe the stomach and intestines during digestion. In addition, peppermint can also be used to soothe the smooth muscles of the respiratory system. It can also help to improve your breathing. If you have noticed from many decongestants you find in the stores, many of them contain a strong menthol smell to them. Peppermint naturally contains menthol which helps to break up congestion.
Plantain Leaf has been used for hundreds of years to soothe mucous membranes that have been irritated and to help reduce coughing. If you have a dry cough, this can be the most helpful as it can provide more moisture to the lungs in the case of excessive dryness.
Oregano is used a lot for immune support, however that isn't the only benefit you will receive if using this during wildfire season. This herb has a few different compounds that are natural decongestants and reduce histamine, which will be beneficial for your lungs and sinuses.
Chaparall is used to detoxify the lungs. This actually would be beneficial for the end of wildfire season when you have been exposed to smoke for an extended period of time, or if you have had a lot of exposure to smoke. I tend to like using this in tinctures, but you can lightly detox by using it in tea form.
Licorice Root helps to reduce inflammation and does a great job of protecting the mucous membranes from damage by the airborne particles. The Licorice root can be added to teas to sweeten the tea and to protect your respiratory system.
Similar to Licorice Root, Marshmallow Root reduces inflammation and protects the mucous membranes. It also does a great job of cooling and soothing your body from the irritation of the smoke.
Use a Nebulizer to Help Your Lungs
Nebulizers are usually used to turn medicines into a mist-form to allow the medicine to reach the lungs easier. Usually this is used by people who have asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis, or other respiratory issues.
A nebulizer can also be a great way to rehydrate the linings of the respiratory system, and if you are under supervision from someone proficient in herbal or functional medicine, it can be a great way to get herbal or supplemental support into the respiratory system.
When I use a nebulizer during wildfire season, then I usually mix a little NAC into water and inhale that. It is a great way to help the mucous membranes along the respiratory tract.
Staying Hydrated During Wildfire Season
If you have gone outside for an extended period of time, you may have noticed that your throat or nose feels dry, and the air you are breathing is very dry. With the smoke in the air, this reduces the humidity level and causes the air we breathe to be really dry.
Our lungs and respiratory system need some moisture in order to function and filter properly. It is very important to make sure you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day to stay up on your hydration.
To go along with hydration, make sure to stay up on your electrolytes as well. Electrolytes help to regulate water throughout the body, and most people don't get enough electrolytes into their diet. I like to use this electrolyte supplement to get adequate electrolytes back into my diet.
2. Preventing Dry Eyes When Exposed to Smoke
After spending some time outside in the smoke, you may notice that your eyes become irritated or dry. Some people have even asked why does smoke burn your eyes. We will dive into what causes the irritation to the eyes, and what are some options you can do to support your eyes.
What Causes the Eyes to Become Dry or Irritated When Exposed to Wildfire Smoke
When there is a smoky haze in the air, then there will also be micro particles of debris floating around as well. Sometimes we can see these particles if they are big enough (this would be ash falling from the sky) but in a lot of cases, the particles are too small to see with the naked eye.
However, just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't in the air. These micro particles are what causes irritation of the eyes. When the eyes become irritated, it may feel like a burning sensation or even a dry sensation.
If you wanted to get wild and crazy, you could wear goggles while walking outside. The likelihood of you following through with the goggle idea (and looking like a bug while walking around) is pretty slim. So one of the best things you can do is to avoid going outside for extended periods of time, especially when the air quality is really bad.
If you are known to have issues with your eyes, such as dry eyes, it is best to stay inside with well-ventilated air.
What To Do If Your Eyes Start to Burn or are Irritated
One way to reduce the inflammation of your eyes is to lay down with a cold compress over your eyes for 20 minutes at a time. This can help to relieve some of the pain and pressure experienced from irritated eyes.
If your eyes become dry, you can also use some over-the-counter tear drops to moisturize the eyes. You can also use some herbs to make homemade eyewashes and compresses to help as well.
You can make a gentle eyewash using Eyebright. You can infuse about 1 tsp of Eyebright in a cup of hot water, and allow it to cool. Once cooled, strain the herb and use an eye cup to place the infusion on your eye.
Chamomile is a very soothing herb and helps to soothe the eyeballs. It can also reduce swelling, inflammation, and itching. You can use it in a tea bag and place the wet tea bag directly over your eyes for 10-15 minutes. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may have to repeat every couple of hours.
3. Protect Your Heart From Complications During Wildfire Season
You would assume that wildfire smoke would cause more complications with the lungs and the eyes than anywhere else in your body. However, studies have shown that you are more likely to have a heart event when exposed to wildfire smoke than any of the other issues previously mentioned.
Here is a list of conditions that may be exacerbated from wildfire smoke:
- Ischemic Heart Disease
- Irregular Heart Beat or Arrythmia
- Heart Failure
- Heart Attack
The studies have shown the greatest risk is in people 65 and older. On days with lots of wildfire smoke, the rates of ER visits increase dramatically.
How to Reduce Inflammation to Keep the Heart Healthy During Wildfires
If you have known heart issues, it may be best just to stay in doors. But if you are exposed to the smoke, here are some ways to help your body out.
The name of the game to keep the heart healthy is to always reduce inflammation as much as possible. In this podcast episode with Dr. Jack Wolfson, we dive deep into natural ways to keep your heart healthy.
When the heart is under a lot of stress from the smoke, it may be best to follow an anti-inflammatory type of diet. This would consist of removing processed foods, excess sugar, and add in nutrient-rich foods.
I would also recommend adding in antioxidant-rich foods. Antioxidant-rich foods are:
- Artichoke Hearts
- Dark Leafy Greens (not necessarily antioxidant-rich, but great for the body)
4. Stay Indoors to Avoid Over-Exposure to Wildfire Smoke
When the weather is extremely nice out, it can be so difficult to stay inside. Trust me, living near Seattle where we have 10 months of rain, it is tough not to go outside…
…But when the smoke is so thick you can't see one block over, then it is better to protect your health than enjoy the sunshine. These past couple of summers have definitely put a damper on some of my backpacking trips, but I focus on the long term effects than just my short term gains.
A well ventilated building can provide a nice safe-haven from the smoky outdoors. The ventilation systems should capture most of the floating particles before the air gets to you. Hopefully the places you visit swap out their air filters regularly so the air is clean.
What to do For Your Own Home
Many homes don't have great ventilation systems, so there are some steps to protect your home:
- Keep all windows and doors closed as much as possible. This will help to keep floating particles out of the house.
- Don't use the ac units that sit on the window sill. These don't typically have filter systems, and will push bad air into the house.
- In most cases it would be better to recirculate the air in the home with a fan. If you keep the doors and windows closed, the air inside should be decently clean.
- Use an air purifier. I use the Molekule Air Purifier because it doesn't just filter the air, it destroys harmful particles. You can listen to my conversation with the founder of Molekule here. This air purifier has been so popular that it has been sold out for almost a year. It just came back in stock 2 days ago, so order one before it is sold out!
Will a Face Mask Protect Me From the Smoke
There is a lot of talk about wearing face masks when the air quality gets bad. While masks like the N95 or N100 can protect you from the fine particles that are floating in the air, they can actually provide a false sense of security while using them.
These masks are designed to keep particles out of your respiratory system, but there are other harmful issues with the wildfire smoke. Smoke can also contain harmful gases, such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and acrolein. These gases are not going to be filtered by an N95 or N100 mask.
Masks can be helpful for small amounts of time spent out in the smoke, but do not use them thinking they are fully protecting your health.
5. Use a Salt Room or Salt Lamp
Now this is one of my secret tricks to cleanse out the gunk from the body. Last year when we had smoke blanketing the sky for about 4 weeks, I had to go clear out my lungs. There is a spa near us that has an entire salt room where the salt purifies the air and your lungs, and pulls the crud out.
We laid in the room for about an hour as the air was filled with salt. The whole time we could feel stuff coming up and out of our lungs. It makes you cough up a lot of mucous. But after the hour was up, we both could breathe better than we could even remember.
Now not everyone has access to a cool salt room, so there has to be other ways to create a similar scenario in your own home. That experience made us believe in the power of real salt lamps.
How to Know Which Salt Lamp is Real
When a product comes out that a lot of people start to buy, then obviously knockoffs will start to show up on the shelves as well. Here are some guidelines to avoid the knockoffs:
- Real Salt Lamps should provide a a soft warm glow. If the lamp puts off a bright light, then most likely it is fake.
- If the lamp does well near moisture, then something is wrong. Have you ever had salt get wet before? That will also happen to a real salt lamp.
- A Real Lamp will be fragile. Salt is not that durable, and if you can drop the lamp and nothing happens to it, you've been duped.
- The salt should not look the same throughout the lamp. Real salt has a lot of imperfections, and that should be seen in the lamps.
This is the lamp that we use in our house. It is made out of real salt, and every single one looks different.
As a side note, you may want to place something underneath your lamp if you live in a humid environment. Otherwise you might end up with a big mess!
Is Wildfire Smoke Harmful to Pets
This is a great question, and for all of you with furry (and non-furry) friends at home, you probably want to know the answer.
The human body is pretty resilient. We see how well we can handle the constant toxic exposure we face on a daily basis.
If the smoke increases ER visits by over 40% each day for humans, then of course the smoke is going to be harmful for pets.
Pets and animals however can be more difficult to treat or keep inside. I don't know too many people that want to house their horses and pigs inside until the smoke blows through. So the best we can do is limit their exposure as much as possible, and pay attention to any signs they show of health difficulties.
What About Hiking and Backpacking Trips in Wildfire Smoke
Like I mentioned previously, it can be tough to stay home when you only have a couple months of solid hiking and backpacking weather.
Last year, we went on a 5 day backpacking trip at the end of August. There were some bigger fires relatively close to us, but didn't pose any real threats. However, on day 3, a small brush fire that had been smoldering for 3 weeks was hit with wind, and took off.
I was literally on the phone with the ranger station while sitting on a ridge watching it engulf a mountainside. The ranger station told me they knew about the small fire (before the wind), and within half an hour of my call, they had airplanes overhead assessing the fire. Next day they had to evacuate everyone out of that region.
Moral of the story, know where the major fires are, and be ready to move in case of smaller fires. Even one lightning strike can change up your trip. You have to be adaptable this time of year.
Are There Places With Less Smoke
You can look on sites like airnow.gov to see maps of where the smoke is the worst. If you really need to get outside, try to find areas with better quality air, or at least predicted to have better air coming in within a couple of days. If you get lucky, you might be able to get above the smoke if you climb high enough!
It can be very difficult (if not impossible) to avoid exposure to the wildfire smoke this time of year. You can support your lungs, eyes, and heart with different herbs and nutrients to minimize impact on the body.
You can also fortify your home with a high quality air purifier like Molekule so you have a safe haven to come home to.
To really pull out the crud from your body, take a trip to a salt room or get a Real Salt Lamp for your bedroom. This will open up your respiratory system so you can breathe better.
And if you have to go backpacking, be safe and try to find an area with a little less smoke!