Health & Fitness

Dr. Wood: Be prepared for the health problems that come with wildfire smoke season

Summer brings heat — and, in recent years, wildfire smoke. This year, western Washington is considered to be at high risk for wildfires.

Smoke can cause a variety of health problems that range from mild to severe. Mild eye or throat irritation is very common. Other health problems include coughing, wheezing, a headache or even trouble breathing.

For those who are already at high risk due to another health problem, such as asthma or other lung or heart diseases, a bout of wildfire smoke could be enough to seriously aggravate their condition. Children and the elderly as especially susceptible to smoke, even if they are otherwise healthy.

When smoke levels are high, even people who are otherwise healthy can start having symptoms. If you have respiratory disease or heart disease, it’s especially important to contact your health care provider and talk about ways you can protect yourself.

There are good ways to keep an eye on the quality of air in Thurston County.

There are some other easy things you can do to be safe when the air gets smoky. The Washington State Department of Health recommends the following:

  • Avoid physical exertion outdoors if smoke is in the air.

  • If you have asthma or other lung diseases, make sure you follow your doctor’s directions about taking your medicines and follow your asthma management plan. Call your health care provider if your symptoms worsen.

  • Stay indoors and keep indoor air as clean as possible.

There are important steps to take inside your home to protect yourself from smoke, and to try and keep your home cool at the same time.

  • Keep windows and doors closed. Track the air quality and open your windows for fresh air when the air quality improves.

  • Pay attention to the heat indoors and if it’s too hot, run an air conditioner set it to re-circulate and close the fresh-air intake. Make sure to change the filter regularly.

  • Use an air cleaner with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to reduce indoor air pollution. A HEPA filter will reduce the number of irritating fine particles in indoor air. A HEPA filter with charcoal will help remove some of the gases from the smoke. Do not use an air cleaner that produces ozone.

  • For more information:

If you need to, consider leaving the area when it’s smoky. Staying with friends or family outside the smoke zone is a good way to avoid poor air quality.

If smoke is having a serious effect on you or a family member, never hesitate to call 911.

While respirator masks (type N95 or N100) do filter out fine particles, they don’t filter out hazardous gases. In addition, they can be difficult to fit, especially with any kind of beard or mustache. It’s also important to remember that wearing a mask can sometimes feel hot, and can make it more difficult to breathe. For people who already have a medical condition, wearing a mask could make things worse rather than better. In addition, masks are not approved for children.

Thurston County may have cooling centers available for people that can help them get out of both heat and smoke, if they aren’t able to close windows and air condition or cool their own home. Often the library, grocery store, movie theater, or local mall can be more comfortable for short periods of time.

One thing is certain — it’s good to be prepared. Wildfire smoke is a hazard we may start seeing every summer.

Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501,, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.