Wildfire smoke is hazardous and contains pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter. When structures are burned one must account for incinerated plastics, chemicals, and other particulates as well. Adults with respiratory problems (such as asthma), diabetes, heart/lung problems, as well as small children and the elderly are especially vulnerable. Symptoms of smoke inhalation include headaches, sore throat, burning eyes, irritated sinus, runny nose, and cough.
Individuals should stay indoors whenever possible, but if one must be outside two simple precautions are advised.
Wear a mask: Covering the mouth with a barrier of some sort is vital. Something as simple as a damp handkerchief or a surgical mask is better than nothing, but ideally one would have a N95 dust mask (also called a N95 respirator). These can be purchased at a local hardware store and should cost ten dollars or less. Look for masks with the plastic valve in front, these are best as they allow exhaled air to pass through the mask with ease.
Note: N95 masks are not fitted for children and when worn improperly will not function well. N95 masks can be modified for children by making a one to two inch cut in the side of the mask (between the bands and towards the center), folding one side of the cut over the other, gluing this closed in position, and shortening the bands. The idea here is to form a tight and complete enclosure around the mouth so that when the person inhales, the contaminated outside air must pass through the mask (air takes the path of least resistance and will enter through an opening if possible).
Updated list of stores currently selling N95 masks:
Free masks can be found at the Tom Waddell Urban Health Clinic (230 Golden Gate Ave., SF, between Leavenworth and Jones), open from 8am – 5pm. Urgent Care at 50 Ivy St., SF. If traveling to these locations isn’t possible, consider calling 311.
Stay hydrated: Smokey air contains microscopic particles that get trapped in lungs and can be absorbed into the bloodstream. Water flushes these particles from one’s system. Staying hydrated also keeps the body healthy and facilitates skin cell strength, something important when the air is so dry. Hot liquids such as tea are especially good as they encourage saliva and mucus to move, thereby pushing trapped particulates through the body. Generally speaking, one is hydrated if one empties the bladder every three to five hours with pale yellow urine.
Other items to consider incorporating into one’s diet in these times are ginger, vitamin C, steam with thyme, and saline nasal spray. But first and foremost: stay indoors and stay hydrated, and if outside wear a N95 mask!