Best prescription for avoiding wildfire smoke: Stay indoors

Portland residents come out to see smoke from the wildfires casting a colorful haze over the West Side, Sept. 9, 2020. (OHSU/Kristyna Wentz-Graff)

As smoke from large wildfires burning in eastern and southern Oregon, as well as neighboring states, creates poor air quality, experts at Oregon Health & Science University warn that people should stay indoors to avoid dangerous particles – and this advice goes for both at-risk and healthy people.

Gopal Allada, MD, stands outside, smiling.

Gopal Allada, MD, (OHSU)

Gopal Allada, MD, associate professor of medicine (pulmonary and critical care) at the OHSU School of Medicine, warns that wearing a cloth mask outdoors will not sufficiently protect people from microscopic particles from smoke from forest fires. N95 masks are the gold standard.

However, the best protection against wildfire smoke is to limit time spent outdoors, he said.

“A cloth mask, wet towel, or bandana is not designed to protect you from fine particles entering the lungs,” Allada said. “Worse still, it could give people a false sense of security that it’s safe to stay out longer than they should.”

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. The smoke can irritate the 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 depends on the amount and duration of exposure and your general health.

Q: What is particulate matter?

A: The particles in smoke from wildfires pose the greatest risk to your health. Particles larger than 10 micrometers irritate the eyes, sinuses and throat. However, particles around 2.5 micrometers in size are inhaled into your lungs and trigger inflammation. Particle size is important because you must wear the proper protective clothing to prevent these very small particles from causing damage.

Q: How can I protect myself from smoke?

A: Here are some strategies to help you:

  • Stay indoors when possible with doors and windows closed.
  • Reduce sources of indoor air pollution such as tobacco smoke, wood stoves and candles.
  • Use High Efficiency Air Purifying (HEPA) filters to remove indoor airborne irritants.
  • Avoid vacuuming, which can stir up dust.
  • When driving a vehicle, keep the windows closed with the air conditioning set to recirculate.
  • Drink plenty of water to help reduce sore throat and cough symptoms.

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

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

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

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