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Wildfire smoke, emissions and smog are worsening air quality. Here's what that means for your lungs

The NCAR Fire burning in South Boulder on the afternoon of March 26, 2022.
Ron Bostwick
The Colorado Sound
Smoke rises from the NCAR Fire on the afternoon of March 26, 2022.

With a warming climate and drought throughout our region, Colorado’s fire season is getting longer. More smoke, as well as emissions and smog, is contributing to Colorado’s already bad air quality. Add allergies to that, and it can be hard for people to breathe.

KUNC’s Samantha Coetzee spoke to Meghan Abrams, a pulmonary nurse practitioner with the University of Colorado College of Nursing, to talk about the risks of wildfire smoke, its effect on our body and how those symptoms can differ from allergies.

Interview Highlights:
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Samantha Coetzee: What respiratory issues have you been seeing in the clinic this time of year?

Meghan Abrams: Well, before I begin, I'd like to make a disclaimer that my opinions are my own and are not reflective of my current or former employers. But historically, over the summertime, we definitely see a flare of pre-existing lung conditions. So patients that have COPD or asthma are coming in with increased complaints of a shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, increased cough, or mucus production. And sometimes these conditions are even requiring escalations of their baseline medications inclusive of oral corticosteroids or often hospitalizations as well. So it's getting pretty serious for many of the Denver patrons.

Has that increased in recent years?

I would say it has, definitely. As the smoke and smog and pollution is getting worse in Denver with the climbing population, it has been getting worse.

Could you touch a little bit on which groups of people are especially vulnerable to the effects of all these changes?

Yeah, I think that mostly people that have pre-existing cardiopulmonary issues and the elderly are most vulnerable to the effects of air pollution here in Denver and need to take extra precautions as summertime is approaching.

Can you talk a little bit more on the effects of wildfire smoke, specifically on the lungs, even for "healthy people?" 

Yes, absolutely. Well, you know, I suspect that in addition to the wildfire smoke, changing weather patterns, winds and the increasing population are all adding to the increased air pollution that Denver is experiencing. And because of the unique location of Denver and the unique topography — since Denver is right at the base of the Rocky Mountains — we are particularly prone to the effects of air pollution. And air pollution is bad in general for people, for healthy people and for those particularly that have underlying cardiopulmonary issues that I mentioned previously. But this can cause inflammation of sinus passages and lung passages which can make it difficult for people to breathe. It can cause inflammation in their lungs and can kind of set us up for being vulnerable or be more vulnerable to developing lung diseases in the future.

So you're talking about congestion in the nose and all that. How can people differentiate between smoke irritation, allergies with allergy season coming up and just bad air quality in general?

You know, it's really difficult to differentiate between the three conditions. And if you're concerned that you're having allergy issues, it's best to speak with your doctor who can help to really differentiate by way of a physical exam. Allergies and pollution exposures, including that of smoke, can cause very similar symptoms. One thing that may be recommended, if okay with your doctor, is utilization of a nasal saline rinse or just saline in the nose. It kind of rinses out all of the pollution, dust, dander, pollen and things like that that we breathe in on a daily basis and helps to remove that from the sinus passageways. It prevents it from penetrating deeper into our respiratory system.

What should people do to limit their exposure to all of these irritants? Or if they have been exposed, what should they do to treat their symptoms?

That's a great question. So definitely a couple recommendations would be to monitor the local air quality reports. And when the air quality is bad, people should really stay indoors as much as possible. If it's not possible to stay indoors, then limiting time outside would be recommended. Don't exercise outside when the air quality is bad. Try to keep your doors and windows closed in your house and use fans and air conditioning units to keep you cool. When you're driving, keep your windows up in your car, and then considering the utilization of a good quality HEPA air filtration device in your home or your bedroom may also be a good idea. And then lastly, for those with underlying cardiopulmonary conditions, consider wearing a particulate mask when you do have to go outdoors.

As the host of Morning Edition at KUNC, I have the privilege of delivering you the news in two ways — from behind the mic and behind the scenes. In addition to hosting Morning Edition, I’ll report on pressing news of the day and arts and culture on the Front Range.
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