How to Protect Your Sinus Health During Wildfire Season
Did you notice anything different the last time you stepped outside for a breath of fresh summer air? Maybe the sky was noticeably hazy, or your sinuses were triggered the moment your nose made contact with outdoor air. In the blazing heat of summer in North America, there’s a chance wildfire has something to do with it.
What causes wildfires?
An overwhelming majority of wildland fires in the United States are caused by humans; from debris burning, equipment malfunctions, acts of arson, and more1. While some wildfires are naturally-occuring and can even be beneficial for the long-term health of an ecosystem, climate change is altering these patterns and increasing risk, length, and intensity of these burns2.
For those with existing nasal, sinus, and other respiratory concerns, the health effects of poor air quality are well-known. For the rest of the population, though, the growing concern of wildfire smoke provides plenty of reasons to stay indoors and pay attention to public health warnings.
What’s the concern about wildfire smoke?
The smoke generated by wildfires is a complex amalgamation of gasses, particles, and water vapor, made up of various pollutants such as carbon monoxide and ozone3. Though invisible to the naked eye, this kind of pollution is made up of miniscule particles in the air that enter through the nose or mouth when breathed in, and can cause damage to the respiratory system and bloodstream. As a result, particle pollution can contribute to the development or worsening of respiratory disease and other health issues.
For some pollutants, there is no safe level of exposure. That means as smoke levels intensify, so too do the risks to your health4.
Can wildfire smoke make you feel sick?
Exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to various symptoms, ranging from mild to severe. Mild symptoms of wildfire smoke inhalation can include:
- Mild cough
- Sore and watery eyes
- Irritation in the nose, throat and sinuses
These symptoms can typically be managed without medical intervention.
More severe but less common symptoms of wildfire smoke inhalation may include:
- Chest pain
- Severe coughing
- Shortness of breath
- Wheezing, including asthma attacks
- Irregular heartbeat
While largely avoidable with the right prevention measures, severe symptoms due to wildfire smoke inhalation can also include stroke and heart attack, and can even be fatal. If symptoms continue to escalate, it’s best to consult with your doctor or seek urgent medical attention.
How does wildfire smoke affect your health?
Certain individuals are at a higher risk of experiencing health problems when exposed to wildfire smoke. These include seniors, pregnant women, infants and young children, people who work outdoors, individuals engaged in strenuous outdoor exercise and those with pre-existing illnesses or chronic health conditions such as cancer, diabetes and lung or heart conditions.
While research is still developing around the cognitive effects of wildfire smoke, the term “smoke brain” is an emerging concern among those who have experienced wildfire events. One study even suggests a link between continued exposure to wildfire smoke and lower test scores, begging the question of the social costs of these events under a warming climate5.
As researchers begin to explore new topics of interest related to the long-term effects, it’s been advised that even short-term exposures to wildfire smoke can impact your health in similar ways to chronic exposures of low-level air pollution. In any case, harmful air quality exacerbates asthma and COPD symptoms, and contributes to a shorter life expectancy6.
How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke
Taking steps to prevent your exposures to harmful air quality is essential to preserving your health amidst the blaze. Here are a few ways to mitigate the risks and harm during wildfire season.
Understand your susceptibility and check your local air quality
The key to maintaining your respiratory health during wildfire season is to know the resources that can help you prepare. Pay attention to forecasts and check wildfire smoke maps ahead of any outdoor plans.
The Air Quality Index (AQI) serves as a valuable tool to inform individuals about the health risks associated with local air pollution and provides guidance on protective measures. It is calculated on the concentration of five major harmful air pollutants: ground level ozone, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfate dioxide, and fine particulate matter, each of which have a national air quality standard set by the EPA to protect public health7.
You can check your local AQI through your local weather report or online resources like AirNow.
The AQI is divided into six categories, each associated with a different level of health concern and represented by a specific color:
- Green (0-50): Good; the air quality is satisfactory and air pollution poses little-to-no risk.
- Yellow (51-100): Moderate; air quality is acceptable but there may be risk for sensitive individuals.
- Orange (101-150): Unhealthy for sensitive groups; infants, pregnant people, older adults, and those with existing heart and lung diseases may experience adverse health effects, while the general public is less likely to be affected.
- Red (151-200): Unhealthy; some members of the public may experience health effects, and sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.
- Purple (201-300): Very Unhealthy; the risk of health effects increases for everyone.
- Maroon (301+): Hazardous; emergency conditions where everyone is more likely to be affected.
Protect your indoor air quality
Protecting indoor air quality is essential during wildfire smoke events. This can be achieved by:
- Properly sealing windows and doors
- Keeping windows and doors closed
- Opting for air conditioning over outdoor air in the home
- Using high-quality air filters
- Installing carbon monoxide alarms
- Avoid using gas appliances
- Upgrade HVAC System Recirculation Filter. MERV 13 filters are recommended during smoke events8.
Protect your respiratory system
Children and those with weakened respiratory systems are strongly advised to wear masks when stepping outdoor for days following a wildfire: wear a N-95 mask or N-100 miller mask, which can block out the smoke’s fine particles and harmful gasses9.
Care for your personal health when you irrigate your sinuses using a nebulizer or a neti pot. Regularly performing nasal irrigation with a saline solution helps clear out excess mucus and particles such as dust, smoke, or pollen. It also moisturizes the nasal cavity, providing relief from congestion10.
How do you detox from wildfire smoke?
It’s realistic to think there are particles already inside your home. While it’s prudent to stay inside with the windows closed during peak wildfire smoke events, it’s also important to know how to protect your health if you’re experiencing symptoms due to wildfire smoke exposure. There are measures you can take to clear pollutants from your body and alleviate discomfort; in case of exposure to unhealthy conditions, try the following.
Drink plenty of water
Staying hydrated helps flush out toxins through the kidneys and liver, while also keeping other essential organs — like nasal tissue — properly lubricated and functioning. The removal of particulate matter can be important in reducing systemic inflammation11 and risk of related conditions like sinusitis.
Take cool showers
Cool showers can provide relief from skin irritation and cleanse irritants from the surface of the body, where they can lead to irritation.
Limit strenuous exercise and activities
Avoid activities that trigger excessive sweating or intensified breathing, as this can exacerbate respiratory conditions. Opt for gentle exercises indoors when the air quality is poor.
Use a saline nasal rinse
Clearing debris from the nasal passages can help reduce congestion and prevent inflammatory responses that may lead to trouble breathing.
Use a prescribed nasal medication
If too much wildfire smoke inhalation has triggered consistent sinus symptoms or trouble breathing, your doctor may prescribe a medicated formula for nasal delivery to help reduce irritation and inflammation. Consider talking to them about using a nasal nebulizer device to ensure more medication gets deeper into your sinuses than through a spray pump or rinse bottle12.
Incorporate a nasal moisturizer into your routine
Nasal medications and frequent saline rinses can strip your nasal passages and irritate your nose13. Prevent nasal dryness with a soothing nasal moisturizer in between treatments.
In the case that symptoms worsen suddenly or steadily, call your doctor for treatment, as they may recommend medicines and treatments specific to your respiratory management plan.
1National Park Service. Wildfire Causes and Evaluations.
2United States Environmental Protection Agency. Climate Change Indicators: Wildfires.
3 4Government of Canada. Wildfire smoke and air quality.
5Nature Sustainability. Lower test scores from wildfire smoke exposure.
6Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke.
7AirNow. Air Quality Index (AQI) Basics.
9ResBiotic. Protecting Your Lungs During Wildfire Season.
10Little Mountain Homeopathy. Natural Treatments for Wildfire Smoke Inhalation.
11The University of British Columbia. 10 tips for coping with wildfire smoke, from a public health expert.
12Nagel, M.W.; Rotenberg, B.W. Intranasal Budesonide Delivered by Nasal Nebulizer Compared to a Sinus Rinse Bottle.
13Healthline. How to Treat Dry Sinuses.