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Are distant wildfires affecting your health here in Telluride?

Medical Moments

Diana Koelliker

You’ve probably noticed that our usual blue Colorado skies have been a little dusky recently. That haze is due to wildfires hundreds of miles away, that not only make our skies less blue, but they could be making you sick as well.

Dr. Diana Koelliker
Dr. Diana Koelliker

The effects of wildfires that are in close proximity are well-known. Those with underlying health problems like asthma, emphysema, heart disease and the very young and the very old are most at risk of having adverse effects related to smoke in the air.

Even if you can’t smell smoke, there can still be particulate matter in the air that can affect your respiratory status. Anecdotally, I feel like I’ve seen more patients this past week with complaints related to seasonal allergies and I am presuming this may be related to the particulate matter in the air. Nasal congestion, itchy eyes or nose, sneezing and coughing may be helped by taking allergy medications.

If you have underlying lung disease, like asthma or COPD, you may need to use your rescue medications (like an albuterol inhaler) more often if you are having symptoms like wheezing.

Also, limit your exposure to the allergens by limiting your time outside or not engaging in strenuous aerobic activity while the air quality is poor.

Finally, our high altitude environment may exacerbate the effect of particles in the air due to wildfires. Since our concentration of oxygen is decreased at high altitude, a little pollution can have a bigger effect.

The following are recommendations from the CDC regarding wildfire smoke:

Seven Tips for Protecting Yourself from Breathing Wildfire Smoke
If possible, limit your exposure to smoke. Here are seven tips to help you protect your health:

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports. When a wildfire occurs in your area, watch for news or health warnings about smoke. Pay attention to public health messages and take extra safety measures such as avoiding spending time outdoors.
  • Pay attention to visibility guides if they are available. Although not every community measures the amount of particles in the air, some communities in the western United States have guidelines to help people estimate air quality based on how far they can see.
  • If you are told to stay indoors, stay indoors and keep your indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed unless it is very hot outside. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. Seek shelter elsewhere if you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed.
  • Do not add to indoor pollution. When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles and fireplaces. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke tobacco or other products, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
  • Follow your doctor’s advice about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
  • Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection.
  • Avoid smoke exposure during outdoor recreation. Wildfires and prescribed burns—fires that are set on purpose to manage land—can create smoky conditions. Before you travel to a park or forest, check to see if any wildfires are happening or if any prescribed burns are planned.