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  • Wildfire Smoke

    How to protect your health from the haze.

    You may have noticed wildfire smoke has become part of Pierce County summers in recent years. Climate change is linked to longer, warmer, and drier summers. These conditions lead to wildfires. This new problem might be a lasting problem. 

    Health effects from smoke can vary greatly from person to person. Smoke contains tiny particles that are bad for your lungs, heart, sinuses and other parts of your body. Those with underlying medical conditions like asthma feel them the most. But everybody should pay attention to their own health when smoke is in the air.  

    Check with Puget Sound Clean Air Agency or Washington Smoke Information for current conditions. 

    Create a clean room

    Smoke from fires can make outdoor air unhealthy. Actions that project your health from wildfire smoke can also project you during any smoke events. 

    A clean air room can help reduce your exposure to wildfire, or other types of smoke while indoors. This should be a room large enough for everyone in your household, and comfortable for extended periods of time. You should close windows and doors to keep air in the room isolated from the rest of the house.

    If you have an HVAC system, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends you use a high-efficiency filter—MERV 13 or higher. If you don’t have an HVAC system, use an air cleaner with a HEPA filter or make your own Box Fan FilterLearn more about how to create a clean room.

    Smoke gets in your eyes (and lungs, and sinuses…)

    When it’s smoky, take charge of your health: 

    • Check air quality before you’re active outside.
    • Limit time outdoors on poor air quality days.
    • Keep windows and doors closed.
    • Run an air conditioner on recirculate to avoid bringing in outside air.
    • Use an air cleaner with a HEPA filter or make your own Box Fan Filter.
    • Don’t pollute your indoor air.  Avoid candles, incense, fireplaces, gas stoves and frying food.
    • Don’t smoke.
    • Consider leaving the area if the air quality is poor and it’s not possible to keep indoor air clean.
    • If you have asthma or COPD, have an action plan. Talk with your healthcare provider to prepare for poor air quality days.
    • Don’t vacuum. It stirs up dust and smoke particles. 

    View how wildfire smoke can affect your health.

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    Use your best common sense. If it looks and smells smoky outside, don’t go for a run, mow the lawn, or allow children to play outdoors.

    Listen to your body. You might have:

    • Itchy or burning eyes.
    • Sore throat.
    • Sinus congestion.
    • Headaches.
    • Heart palpitations.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Coughing.

    When you should worry

    If you have heart or lung disease, those might get worse. 

    Smoke can also cause serious problems for sensitive groups like children, pregnant women and the elderly. Children breathe more air per pound of body weight, and their lungs are still developing. 

    Other groups at higher risk include people who are obese, who smoke or have:

    • Lung diseases such as asthma and COPD.
    • Respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, colds and flu.
    • Existing heart or circulatory problems.
    • Prior history of heart attack and stroke.
    • Diabetes.
    • COVID-19.

    If you’re in one of those groups and worried about your symptoms, talk to your healthcare provider. If you have shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue or difficulty moving, contact your healthcare provider immediately or call 911.

    Recommendations for businesses

    Recommendations for schools

    Know what air quality means to you

    Washington State Department of Ecology’s Air Quality Index (AQI) reports air quality. AQI information can help inform you about air quality levels. When there is too much air pollution, your health could be at risk.

    ColorAir pollution categoryMeaningPrecaution to take
    GreenGoodAir pollution is minimal and there is little health risk.None.
    YellowModeratePeople with:

    • Asthma.
    • Respiratory infections.
    • Diabetes.
    • Heart or lung disease.
    • Those who have had a stroke.

    These people may begin to have breathing problems.
    People with:

    • Asthma.
    • Respiratory infections.
    • Diabetes.
    • Heart or lung disease.
    • Those who have had a stroke.

    These people should limit outdoor activities or do activities that take less effort, such as walking instead of running.
    OrangeUnhealthy for Sensitive GroupsMore people than average may have breathing problems or have worsened symptoms of existing asthma or lung disease.Sensitive groups include:

    • People with heart or lung disease.
    • Asthma.
    • Diabetes.
    • Infants and children.
    • Adults older than 65.
    • Pregnant women.
    • Those who have had a stroke.

    These people should limit time spent outdoors.
    RedUnhealthy for Everyone Many more people than average may have breathing problems or have worsened symptoms of existing lung or heart disease.Everyone, especially sensitive groups, should:

    • Limit time spent outdoors.
    • Avoid exercising outdoors (including sports teams).
    • Choose non-strenuous indoor activities.
    PurpleVery Unhealthy for EveryoneSome healthy people may have breathing problems. People with asthma, lung and heart disease have an increased risk of symptoms or worsening of their disease. Studies show that hospitalizations increase by 50 percent for people with lung diseases.Everyone should:

    • Stay indoors. 
    • Do only light indoor activities. 
    • Keep windows closed if it is not too hot.
    • Run air conditioners on re-circulate.
    • Close the outside air intake.
    • Use indoor air cleaners with HEPA filters, if available.
    • Wear an N-95 respirator mask, if you must be outdoors. People with chronic diseases should check with their health care provider before wearing a mask.

    People with asthma, lung and heart disease, or who have had a stroke should check with their healthcare provider for advice about leaving the area. Anyone with shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, or difficulty moving or speaking should call their healthcare provider or call 911.
    Dark Red HazardousMore healthy people are likely to have breathing problems.
    The people most susceptible are:

    • People with heart or lung disease.
    • Asthma.
    • Diabetes.
    • Infants and children.
    • Adults older than 65.
    • Pregnant women.
    • Those who have had a stroke.

    Studies suggest more people with asthma, lung or heart disease need medical attention.
    Everyone should:

    • Stay indoors. 
    • Do only light activities. 
    • Keep windows closed if it is not too hot.
    • Run air conditioners on re-circulate.
    • Close the outside air intake.
    • Use indoor air cleaners with HEPA filters, if available.
    • Wear an N-95 respirator mask, if you must be outdoors. People with chronic diseases should check with their health care provider before wearing a mask.

    Check with your local health department for health information. People with asthma, heart or lung disease, or who have had a stroke should check with their healthcare provider for advice about leaving the area. Anyone with shortness of breath, wheezing, chest pain, heart palpitations, extreme fatigue, or difficulty moving or speaking should call their healthcare provider or call 911.

    Outdoor Air Quality FAQs

    When enough tiny particles—called fine particulate matter—are in the air, they can cause health problems. In the winter months, Pierce County can have unhealthy air quality because of wood-burning stoves. In the summer months, ozone and wildfire smoke pose problems.

    • Avoid physical exertion and stay indoors as much as possible.
    • Keep doors and windows closed when possible. Run an air conditioner—if you have one—and set it to re-circulate.
    • Shop for a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter if someone in your home has asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a history of heart disease or stroke.
    • Make your own air filter with a box fan and about $25 in supplies if you can’t afford a HEPA filter.

    Washington Department of Health recommends schools and other organizations cancel all outdoor activities—youth sports camps, practices, games, etc.—during times of unhealthy, very unhealthy or hazardous air quality. See the state’s recommendations for school activities based on air quality.

    Just like you check the weather forecast, we encourage you to get in the habit of checking the air quality every day. You can: 

    Air quality can change quickly and vary across different parts of the county.If you smell smoke and the air looks smoky, use your best judgement. Stay indoors when possible and postpone outdoor activities.

    Be sure to ask your healthcare provider if a mask is right for you. To work, masks must fit correctly. Cloth face coverings don’t provide adequate protection from wildfire smoke. N95 face masks do.

    Resources