Staying safe and healthy during wildfire season

July 10, 2023 Swedish Health Team


In this article: 

  • A Swedish expert offers tips for keeping you and your family safe during wildfire season. 

  • Smoky air can be especially dangerous for young children, those over 65 and anyone with a chronic health condition. 

  • Stay inside as much as possible; we may not realize how much smoke we are in haling during everyday activities and be sure to check daily air quality reports. 

The 2023 wildfire season has parts of the United States and Canada grappling with intense fires, smoke and historically bad air quality. Experts are predicting that the 2023 fire threat in the Northwest may be the worst in the nation, with Washington State facing an unusually high risk, particularly in July and August. In fact, as recently as early June, the National Interagency Coordination Center recently issued a red flag warning for the western Cascades because of dry and breezy conditions. 

As fire season approaches here in the Pacific Northwest, we are revisiting some advice from Elizabeth Meade, M.D., FAA, IBCLC, Swedish’s medical director of education, outreach and quality, pediatrics, about protecting our health during smoky season. 

In Washington state, wildfires are unfortunately becoming a new normal. The last few years have brought big burns that have eclipsed the summers with smoke, limiting the outdoor activities that this part of the country is known for. While you may not individually be able to control whether fires occur—other than doing your part by adhering to burn bans, always practicing fire safety, and following rules and recommendations around starting fires—you can use some tactics to mitigate effects on our health. Here are my tips on how to stay healthy amidst smoky skies.

Staying inside

Stay inside as much as possible. This may seem like common sense, but you don’t always recognize how much smoke you inhale by just doing everyday outdoor activities like checking the mail, walking into a store or watering the plants. It’s especially important to avoid outdoor exercise, or any outdoor activities that cause faster or deeper breathing – this increases the number of smoke particles you inhale during a given period of time. Staying indoors is recommended for everyone, but especially for young children, those over 65, pregnant women, or anyone with a chronic health condition (especially heart or lung disease).

While you are inside:

  • Check air quality reports daily. This can help determine which days to completely avoid outdoor activities, and which days may be safer if there are things to tend to outside like gardening or housework. Check with schools to see if they are limiting outdoor playtime and sports practices.
  • Keep the inside air as clean as possible. Doors and windows should stay closed. It may also help to use an indoor HEPA air filter.
  • Limit particulate matter or smoke. This means no candles, indoor fires, smoking, or vacuuming. Limit gas stove usage or cooking indoors.

Venturing outside

Wear a mask to reduce smoke inhalation, especially if you are at high risk of complications from smoke exposure or work outside. Bandanas, scarves, and simple/cloth face masks do not protect from fine particles – for this purpose, use a properly fitting mask labeled N95 or N100. It’s important to note that these masks are unlikely to fit infants, small children, or those with beards. N95 or N100 masks  can also make breathing more difficult for some people with chronic health problems. If you have heart disease, lung problems, or any chronic illness, check with your physician, caregiver or advanced practice clinician (APC) before going outside or using a mask.

If you have a chronic health condition

If you have chronic heart or lung disease, make sure you have an ample supply of your medications and inhalers with you. If you start having symptoms like difficulty breathing or coughing, seek treatment right away. If the air in your area is particularly bad, check with your  doctor to ask if you should change or increase any of your preventative medications.

Learn more and find a provider 

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.  

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.  

Additional resources

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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