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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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Smoke Danger From California Wildfires

Health Hazards From Smoke Particularly Affect Young, Old, Those With Lung Conditions

How to Gauge the Smoke Danger

Use your senses to gauge the level of pollution from smoke exposure, says Frank Gilliland, MD, PhD, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, who studied the health effects of the 2003 California wildfires on children. "We tell people if they can smell smoke, it's at very high levels. They should use their own senses to tell them what they should be doing [in terms of outdoor activity]."

If people feel eye or throat irritation while outdoors, Gilliland tells WebMD, "they ought to alter their activity [and exercise indoors] until the levels abate."

Paying attention to symptoms -- and taking precautions such as exercising indoors -- is advised for a period of time after the fire is out, he adds. Those living in the California wildfire zones are probably wise to take precautions for two weeks, he says, depending on how quickly the smoke dissipates.

Are You Smoke-Sensitive?

Some people are more susceptible to the effects of smoke and other particulates, Gilliland and others say. Not surprisingly, the very young and very old tend to be more susceptible, as do those with respiratory problems such as asthma. But surprisingly, Gilliland and his colleagues have found that susceptibility isn't limited to those who have asthma and other airway problems.

In research conducted after the California wildfires in 2003, Gilliland's team surveyed more than 6,000 elementary and high school students in communities affected by wildfires and found that those who didn't have asthma tended to have stronger symptoms from the smoke exposure than those who did, perhaps because those who had asthma took more precautions such as staying indoors during the fires.

Their study was published in 2006 in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical CareMedicine.

Genetic makeup plays a role, Gilliland says. A genetic variation found in about half the population increases the risk of airway sensitivity, Gilliland tells WebMD, citing research.

Steps to Reduce the Health Hazards of Smoke

Simple measures can go a long way to reduce exposure to the particulate matter. "If you are driving through the [fire-stricken] areas, keep your windows closed and your air conditioners on 'recirculate' instead of outdoor air," says Anthony Gerber, MD, a volunteer spokesman for the American Lung Association of California and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco Department of Medicine.

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