Protecting Your Lungs When Air Quality is Poor

We’re in the middle of an emergency here in Northern California, as wind-fueled wildfires have been raging for days. We’re coming together as a community to support the families who have been displaced, but it’s becoming clear that even those of us further from direct harm are being negatively impacted.

There’s at least 80 miles between my home and the closest fire, yet we’re experiencing major air pollution, with some people reporting that there’s ash on their cars. Now I’m wondering how many small particles we’re inhaling without knowing.

This concern prompted me to research the best practices to protect our lungs when threatened by smoke or pollution since there’s a possibility that air quality will continue to worsen for us.

I’ve collected some of advice, much of which is from the CDC’s guidelines for protection from wildfire smoke. I’ve included my own personal thoughts as well about how to keep your lungs naturally healthy and strong.

Even though much of this will seem obvious, I’m sure there are still many of you out there trying to continue on with your day-to-day routine. You may not realize your health is at risk and perhaps looking at this list will help you make wiser choices.

How to Protect Yourself From Smoke & Air Pollution

1. Become familiar with Air Quality Index and consider how to adjust and when to evacuate

You can search for your city’s Air Quality Index (AQI) on AIRNow. Here in Redwood City the AQI is currently at 108 which is “Unhealthy For Sensitive Groups” meaning that children, senior citizens, and anyone with lung or heart issues should avoid heavy exertion. I was happy to see that at my son’s gym the young athletes were taking it easy today. At the health club where I teach yoga, all outdoor exercise classes were cancelled.

Tomorrow our AQI is going to be 165 – considered “Unhealthy“. This means the entire population should avoid heavy exertion. All classes, outside and inside of the health club are cancelled for tomorrow.

My husband and I are starting to talk about what are plans are if the AQI reaches 201, “Very Unhealthy” since I will not feel comfortable staying beyond that. It’s a good idea to have this discussion with your family too and formulate your emergency plan.

2. Stay inside with doors & windows shut

This is not the time to worry about your child’s amount of outside time or to go out for your daily walk or run. It’s best to stay in our modern dwellings where we have a good amount of protection from particles floating around outside.

3. If possible, invest in an air purifier

We purchased a small HEPA filter when my son was born to ensure that air quality in his bedroom was ideal. Lucky for us, we recently replaced it with a much bigger model that will purify the whole upstairs, perhaps the entire home.

Buying a good quality air purifier is a great investment if you routinely have poor air quality in your town or live in a place like our dry California where wildfires naturally occur every year. Check out The Best Air Purifier Reviews (updated March 2018) to help you make a wise selection.

4. Remember to keep the air in your car clean as well

Turn on the air conditioning but keep the intake vent closed to recirculate filtered air in the car.

5. Limit in-home activities that make pollution worse

Using fireplaces and smoking indoors are obvious hazards to indoor air pollution, but so is burning candles and using gas stoves. The CDC also discourages vacuuming, as it will stir up even more particles in the air.

What about diffusing essential oils?

I have several friends who are advising that we clear the air with essential oils. Before doing this myself, I looked around online and came across an exchange between Robert Tisserand (highly regarded English Aromatherapist and author of Essential Oil Safety) and one of his readers.

In Q&A: I’m choking on wildfire smoke! Can EO help? his reader asks if he should continue diffusing eucalyptus and myrtle when trees, homes, plastics, and other burning toxins are polluting the air.

Robert responds:

“When the air quality is really bad such as from wildfires, inhaling essential oils can add to the respiratory burden. You probably don’t want oils high in monoterpenes – citrus, pines etc. Antioxidant oils such as thyme, oregano, clove might help, but I don’t have any evidence of this, it’s a theoretical benefit. It’s a tricky question, and we will know more in time, but right now I’d say be careful with inhalation of any essential oil.”

This is my sense as well. As much as I love essential oils and recommend them for various conditions, I can not recommend diffusing in this case since I’m not positive about the risks or benefits (I am still applying oils topically to boost my cellular health). Oils will help open your airways, but they will not remove the small particles from the air as an air purifier does. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you’d like to diffuse, and maybe just stick with the antioxidant oils that Robert recommends. Just remember that our children have smaller lungs and will be burdened much sooner than us adults.

6. Don’t rely on hardware store masks to protect yourself

Unfortunately dust masks do not protect against smaller air particles from wildfires that are likely to cause the most damage to the respiratory tract. Neither do bandanas or scarves.

If you’re investing in a fine particle respirator, just be aware that they have their drawbacks too, as many doctors acknowledge. They do not filter out toxins, are not made for children, and are difficult to breathe in for people with respiratory issues. It’s best to stay indoors, which cuts down on at least 50% of the pollution.

7. Keep your body healthy by eating fruits & vegetables high in antioxidants and consider taking vitamin supplements

Hopefully you’ve been working on keeping your body healthy by getting plenty of sleep, managing stress, and eating seasonal foods. But when you’re feeling threatened by the environment this way, sleep may suffer and stress may escalate. This is a great time to load up on foods high in antioxidants.

Increasing vitamin C in your diet can combat ANY kind of stress. You may want to re-read the article: Is Extra Vitamin C A Reliable Key To Good Health? for more information about recommended forms and doses.

I’m also a firm believer in using prayer and positive affirmations to stay healthy and well. Let’s lift each other up and get through this California!

If you have any recommendations to add, please let us know in the comments.

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Brandy Falcon L.Ac.

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