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Smoke Danger From California Wildfires

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

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.

If you must go outdoors and it's smoky, wear a dust mask or hold a wet towel over your face. Masks, available at some hardware stores and medical supply stores, filter out particles of various sizes. Gerber worries that masks may give a false sense of security. "You're not going to be fully protected by wearing a mask," he says.

When indoors, keep on the air-conditioning if it's smoky outside and use the recirculating setting if it's available, he says. Those with lung conditions such as asthma should continue taking their medication and call their doctor if their symptoms seem worse.

How Widespread Will the Effect of Smoke Be?

Predicting how far the smoke from California's wildfires will travel is difficult, Gerber and others say. Winds can carry it farther, for instance, and rain can dampen the spread.

"It could diffuse across the Mexico border," Gerber says of the San Diego wildfire smoke.

"The most northern Mexico towns will be affected," agrees Mosenifar. But he does not think neighboring states -- Arizona, Oregon, Nevada -- will be affected by California wildfire smoke.


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