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A Breathtaking View: Respiratory Health in Wildfire Season

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Published in the Humboldt Independent on September 29, 2020

It’s been a rough year for breathing. We already ask quite a bit of our respiratory system, which is stuck between car exhaust, industrial and environmental pollution, seasonal bouts of pollen, intercontinental Saharan dust clouds, and countless other less-than-visible factors wandering around the atmosphere, and that’s before we even start thinking about wildfire smoke. Our upper respiratory system and lungs are usually the first to suffer from poor air quality, being the first line of defense against polluted air. Recreational lung polluters, motorsport enthusiasts, industrial workers, artists, the very young and the very old, those with preexisting respiratory conditions such as asthma or COPD, and plenty of healthy folks whose hobbies or vocations require exposure to poor quality air are especially at risk during fire season.

The journey of the breath

Problems arise when pollutants and particulates in our air find their way into the body.

When we breathe, the air we inhale is drawn through the lungs into microscopic air sacks called alveoli, which in turn direct the oxygen from that air into our bloodstream, swapping it out for the carbon dioxide we in turn exhale. Problems arise when pollutants and particulates in our air find their way into the body – which, when we’re breathing foul and smoky air, happens on the regular. Various methods of filtration including the mucus in your nose and throat serve to catch as many unwanted guests as possible, but security at a concert this big is not going to be perfect. Many of the problems that occur in the lungs happen in or around the alveoli, impeding the oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange that keeps us healthy and alive. Problems with the lungs can thus in turn affect many other systems in the body, making their strength and functionality a primary focus for those interested in a healthy lifestyle.

Healthy breathing

The simple solution to most lung problems would be to avoid unhealthy air, but abstinence is not always an option, especially these days. Life must go on, pandemics and calamities aside, so what kinds of practical solutions can help us mitigate the damage from wildfire smoke? The masks we’ve all grown so fond of thanks to COVID-19 are oftentimes very effective at keeping the larger particulates in low-quality air out of the mouth, throat, and nose, but may offer little or no protection against some of the more toxic elements of wildfire smoke, according to the Center for Disease Control. If you’re aiming to truly protect yourself with a mask, it’ll need to be a proper respirator (an N95 should be sufficient), and the CDC offers guidelines on their website for those interested.

Our lungs can benefit from good health practices and preventive medicine before things get dire.

Even if you manage to keep pollutants out of your lungs, some decline in overall function is inevitable with aging, which can of course further amplify the effects of air pollution. Aerobic exercise can’t improve lung function, but can increase lung capacity: in other words, how much oxygen your body is able to take in with each breath. Even a damaged, poorly functioning lung can be strengthened, helping to counteract the changes to our bones, muscles, and posture that comes with getting older. Sadly, even if you quit years ago, smoking leaves a permanent mark on your lungs: once damaged, it’s a matter of debate exactly how much our lungs can be repaired, but quitting today is still, obviously, the best option.

Like everything else in our bodies, our lungs can benefit from good health practices and preventive medicine before things get dire. While it’s usually in the interest of our cardiovascular and respiratory health to get plenty of exercise, that’s not exactly an option when the sky is on fire and it’s raining ash. Nobody should be exercising outside under such conditions, healthy or not – try to adjust your exercise regime to something that can be done indoors. Strength training, particularly when focused on the core and upper body, can aid breathing by improving posture and working the associated muscle groups in the chest, shoulders, and back. As far as diet goes, you’ll want to look for antioxidants and flavonoids: tomatoes, bananas, and apples are all a good option for keeping your lungs as healthy as possible.

If you’re looking to cover all your bases, you might want to consider the annual flu vaccine, as well as a pneumonia vaccine. The CDC advises that anyone over 65 receive both: consult your SoHum Health medical provider at your next visit.

Galen Lastko, submitted on behalf of the SoHum Health’s Outreach department.