Your health can be affected by the environment around you, and this includes elements of weather like temperature and air quality.
Over the past few months the western region of the U.S. has experienced extreme weather patterns that have contributed to periods of high heat, dry, drought conditions and wildfires. To help you understand the potential effects of high temperatures and air quality on physical health, we’ll address both topics with the help of Dignity Health Medical Group physicians.
Wildfire Smoke and Your Health
It is important to understand the impact that air quality can have on your health, especially for those in our communities where wildfires continue to rage. Smoke from wildfires can travel very far from where the fire is actually burning. We encourage you to check out AirNow.gov’s Fire and Smoke Map, which shows in real-time the fires burning across California and where smoke is migrating.
We spoke with Miguel Martinez, MD, of Dignity Health Medical Group — Inland Empire to better understand how poor air quality, especially wildfire smoke, can affect one’s health.
How to Check Your Local Air Quality
According to the CDC, wildfire smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles from burning trees and plants, buildings, and other material. Wildfire smoke creates poor quality air that can have harmful effects on health, and can impact communities far outside initial burn areas.
Dr. Martinez recommends referencing AirNow.gov to check the air quality in your area. AirNow is an easy-to-use website that reports on air quality using the official U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI) by just typing in your zip code. The AQI value is color coded into six categories, each representing a different level of health concern, making it easy to determine if air quality is reaching an unhealthy level in your community.
Common Symptoms and Signs of Smoke Exposure
“Anyone can develop symptoms, even from a short amount of exposure to wildfire smoke,” says Dr. Martinez. “Common symptoms could include coughing, trouble breathing, burning eyes, nasal congestion, headaches, and feelings of fatigue.”
The elderly, children, pregnant women, and people with chronic lung or heart disease are at highest risk for health-related issues after exposure to wildfire smoke. Dr. Martinez recommends that people stay indoors during times when air quality is poor, or if possible, go to a different location where the air quality is better.
When air quality is poor, the CDC recommends adjusting outdoor physical activities to avoid breathing in air pollutants. If you can’t cancel or move outdoor activities inside, try changing the activity to a less strenuous one (such as walking instead of running) and limit physical activity to 20 minutes. For those with asthma, make sure to have an inhaler with you at all times.
Effects of Extreme Heat on Physical Health
The typical summer heat wave has lasted longer than usual — and temperatures have been extremely high. Family Practitioner Zeba Yamin, MD, with Dignity Health Medical Group — Bakersfield, underscores the importance of taking precautions in extreme heat to avoid heat exhaustion, heat injury and heat stroke.
Tips for Staying Hydrated and Regulating Body Temperature
“Stay indoors during the hottest part of the day,” said Dr. Yamin, adding that when temperatures are high, it is best to plan outdoor activities in the morning or late in the evening. If you do plan to be indoors, and you don't have access to air conditioning, use multiple fans to circulate air around the space.
If you will be outside for longer periods of time, consider wearing loose, light colored clothes and make sure to hydrate with cold/icy water. “When you spend a lot of time outdoors, and have been sweating, you not only need fluids but also foods and beverages high in electrolytes,” Dr. Yamin said.
Common Symptoms and Signs of Heat-Related Illness
The symptoms of heat-related illness depend on the severity of the disease, says Dr. Yamin. In heat exhaustion, core body temperature could be between 101-104 degrees, while someone suffering from heat stroke will usually have a temperature higher than 104 degrees.
Common symptoms of both heat exhaustion and heat stroke, include:
- Low blood pressure
- Fast heart rate
- Muscle cramps
If these symptoms are present, help the person bring their body temperature down. An ice bath is a quick way to lower a person’s body temperature. If an ice bath is unavailable in the situation you’re in, Dr. Yamin suggests moving to a cool shaded area, followed by spraying water and directing fans onto the person. If the person is conscious, make sure to provide hydration with water or beverages with added electrolytes.
The quality and temperature of the air around you may not be at the forefront of your thoughts when you step out of your home, but these two environmental elements can impact the health of adults and children. Have a plan in place to prepare for or adjust your outdoor activities in high heat and/or poor air quality. If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing health issues related to heat-related illness or poor air quality, please don’t hesitate to make an appointment to consult with your primary care doctor.