With the world experiencing upward temperature trends and records, summers are getting hotter and drier. This means that dry areas prone to wildfires, such as California, Arizona and Oregon, are experiencing even greater risk. Wildfires threaten not only personal property and the environment, but can severely affect the health of those exposed. To prepare for a record-setting wildfire season, learn how wildfires affect air quality and how wildfires affect sleep.
The Danger of Wildfire and Smoke
Climate change has caused warmer and drier climates across the United States. This likewise leads to more frequent and severe wildfires, with smoky skies becoming a normal occurrence across Western America. Wildfires further contribute to climate change as they release harmful emissions that damage the ozone layer, resulting in regional and sometimes even global effects.
How do smoke and wildfires affect air quality?
In addition to damaging the environment and the climate, wildfires affect air quality, and wildfire smoke can have negative consequences to the populations nearby. The smoke produced from wildfires contains a mixture of particles and chemicals, the composition being dependent on what is burned, how much oxygen is available and the temperature. Regardless, all smoke contains the following:
- Carbon monoxide
- Carbon dioxide
- Particulate matter or soot
Even brief exposure to wildfire smoke can cause immediate effects, such as irritation to the eyes, nose and throat. You may also notice nausea onset and reduced lung function. Carbon monoxide decreases the body’s supply of oxygen, which can cause headaches and reduce alertness. Inhaling fine particles, which measure at 2.5 microns or less and are too small to be seen by the naked eye, can also cause respiratory irritation and shortness of breath. Some people may experience the effects of fine particle inhalation for several days afterward or even develop bronchitis.
Who is at greater risk?
If you’re generally healthy, you should recover from smoke exposure without complications. Others, however, may be at greater risk for lasting complications. In some cases, exposure to smoke can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and mortality. Some higher-risk cases include:
- Children and youth who are more likely to have asthma and still have developing respiratory systems
- Pregnant women and fetuses who may suffer health consequences
- Individuals with heart or lung disease, including asthma or heart disease
- Older adults as they’re more likely to have preexisting chronic health conditions
- First responders who experience the most intense exposure
How Wildfires Affect Sleep Quality
Smoke and consequent poor air quality may also negatively affect sleep quality. Some studies have established a link between air pollution, poor air quality and reduced sleep duration of up to 30 minutes. They also suggest poorer overall sleep quality.
Research suggests that smoke and particles can travel to the nervous system and affect the brain’s inflammatory responses and neurotransmitter levels, which significantly influence sleep cycles. Brain inflammation can also lead to reduced breathing function, which may lead to sleep disturbances.
Additionally, poor air quality and increased fine particle inhalation can cause nasal and sinus inflammation, potentially leading to airway obstruction and disrupting sleep. Poor air quality exposure may also present as allergy symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, fatigue and watery or burning eyes. Consult with your doctor if you’re unsure if you’re experiencing allergies or if you’ve been exposed to increased air pollution.
Some studies also suggest a link between mental function and air quality. Exposure to air pollution may cause an increased risk of depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety are strongly associated with decreased sleep quality and sleep deprivation. If nothing else, the fear and anxiety of a nearby wildfire are enough to disrupt anyone’s sleep.
Prepare for Dangerous Smoke Levels
Even if you’re not at higher risk, you should still prepare for smoke levels to avoid potential health and sleep complications. Look for symptoms such as burning eyes, sinus congestion, coughing and difficulty breathing, and consult with your doctor ahead of fire season if you have any preexisting conditions that may put you at higher risk. Try these tips to help reduce negative health consequences this wildfire season:
Avoid Adding to Indoor Pollution
Cooking can increase indoor pollution levels. Instead of frying and broiling foods, keep a few days of nonperishables and foods that don’t need to be cooked in stock. Try not to vacuum or do other tasks that stir up air particles. Don’t smoke or burn anything.
Try an Air Cleaner
Air cleaners can ventilate your home with clean air to help reduce indoor pollutants. This is especially important as you should stay indoors during times of increased air pollution.
Wear N95 Respirator Masks
An N-95 mask or P-100 respirator may help to protect your respiratory system from fine particles. They must fit well and be worn correctly to be effective. You can find them in hardware and home repair stores as well as online.
If the air quality is poor enough, stay inside and make sure that smoke can’t get in. Keep windows and doors closed, except in cases of dangerously hot weather. Avoid prolonged periods of exercise outdoors if you notice increased symptoms.
- How Wildfires Affect Air Quality and Sleep and Preventative Steps to Take - October 29, 2021