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Best prescription for avoiding wildfire smoke: Stay inside

OHSU expert warns that cloth masks are insufficient for wildfire smoke, may give false sense of security
man and child, seen from behind, arm in arm, looking at red-colored smokey sky
Portland residents step outside to view the wildfire smoke casting a colored haze over the west side, September 9, 2020. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

With smoke from wildfires settling across the region, experts from Oregon Health & Science University warn that even healthy people should stay indoors if at all possible.

Gopal Allada, M.D.
Gopal Allada, M.D.

Gopal Allada, M.D., associate professor of medicine (pulmonary and critical care) in the OHSU School of Medicine, warns that wearing a cloth mask outside won’t sufficiently protect people from the microscopic particulate matter that comes from wildfire smoke. N95 masks are the gold standard, however, those are in short supply because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s therefore critical for people to limit their exposure outdoors, he said.

“A cloth mask, wet towel or bandana are not designed to protect you from fine particulate matter entering the lungs,” Allada said. “Even worse, these could give people a false sense of security that it’s safe to stay outside longer than they should.”

Poor air quality prompted OHSU to close its outdoor mobile testing sites for COVID-19 at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Sept. 10, extending through the entire week of Sept. 14-19. In the meantime, people should continue to practice physical distancing, hand-washing and wearing facial coverings to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Questions and answers

Q. Why is wildfire smoke bad for my health?

A: Wildfire smoke is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and plants. Smoke can irritate sinuses and lungs and is known to trigger exacerbations in patients with underlying lung disease such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or cystic fibrosis. Your risk is dependent on the amount and length of time you are exposed as well as your overall general health.

Q: What is particulate matter?

A: The particulate matter in wildfire smoke poses the biggest risk to your health. Particles larger than 10 micrometers irritate your eyes, sinuses and throat. However, particles around 2.5 micrometers are inhaled all the way into your lungs and trigger inflammation. The size of the particle matters because you must have the right protective wear to prevent these super small-sized particles from causing harm.

Q: How can I protect myself from smoke?

A: Here are some strategies to help you:

  • Stay indoors when possible with the doors and windows closed.
  • Reduce sources of indoor air pollution such as smoke from tobacco, wood-burning stoves, and candles.
  • Use high-efficiency (HEPA) air-cleaning filters to help indoor airborne irritants.
  • Avoid vacuuming, which can stir up dust.
  • When driving in a vehicle, keep windows closed with the air conditioning set to recirculate.
  • Drink plenty of water to help reduce symptoms of scratchy throat and coughing.

Q: Should I wear a mask/respirator, and if so, what type will protect me best?

A: Remember that staying away from smoke is the best protection. There are some masks that are more effective than others.

  • N95 respirator. This will filter 95% of smoke particles, though some gases can get through. This is one of the best available masks if fitted and worn properly.
  • “Dust” or “surgical” masks. These masks are NOT designed to filter particulate matter that is harmful to your lungs. Therefore, we would not recommend these.
  • Wet towel or bandana. Like dust masks, these are not designed to protect particulate matter from entering the lungs. They may help with your mouth and sinuses, but give you a false sense of security for your lungs.

Q: How does the coronavirus pandemic affect things?

A: Coronavirus is transmitted primarily by respiratory droplets within 6 feet of the infected person.

  • Due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the N95 masks that are appropriate protection from wildfire smoke have been preferentially supplied to healthcare organizations. We hope that N95 masks can be manufactured in enough supplies so that every person can access to them.
  • In the absence of an N95 mask, the best thing to do is to stay indoors.
  • We know that those who chronically smoke are at risk for worse outcomes of coronavirus. We believe that wildfire smoke exposure could also have the same negative effects.
  • Once the air is safer, please continue to protect yourself from the coronavirus by staying home when possible, using the appropriate masks, social distancing and washing your hands frequently.
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