Smoke & Ash Fill the Air in Oregon – How to Keep Healthy Lungs In Smoky Air

Last updated on September 7th, 2017 at 02:33 pm

Dr. Danielle S Anderson, the author, is a naturopathic physician practicing in Portland, OR.

This morning I awoke to find my car covered in a grey dusting of ash, falling gently like tiny snowflakes. The sun looks red in the smoke-filled sky while acrid air stings my lungs as the immensity of the situation sinks in. Fears of lung damage for 2.4 million local residents invades the sadness of knowing that one of Oregon’s most scenic areas, The Columbia River Gorge, is being engulfed in flames.

Hundreds of square miles in Oregon are being consumed in a series of horrific firestorms. The monstrous Chetco Bar Fire has burned over 176,000 acres and just a few days ago a new forest fire was apparently started by careless teens right on Portland’s doorstep. Now just a few miles from the edge of the metro area, the Eagle Creek forest fire is tearing through the Columbia River Gorge and blanketing Portland, Oregon in nauseating billows of smoke so thick it looks like fog. As a Naturopathic Doctor, it’s my duty to share these simple tips to help Oregon cope with the smoke. My goal is to naturally support lung health, prevent smoke-inhalation and help you be safe in wild fire season.

Eagle Creek fire (KATU-TV)

Identifying the Symptoms of smoke inhalation

  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Burning or dry eyes
  • Headaches
  • Asthma
  • Scratchy throat with postnasal drip
  • Chest pain with deep breathing

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

  • Dull Headache
  • Muscle Weakness and/or Fatigue
  • Nausea and/or Vomiting
  • Shortness of Breath, Difficulty Breathing
  • Confusion and Possible Hallucinations
  • Blurred Vision
  • Loss of Consciousness
  • Possible Results: Convulsions, Brain Damage and Death

NOTE: If you experience severe symptoms such as coughing up or vomiting blood, severe shortness of breath, fainting or weakness, dizzyness, confusion, blue lips or fingernails, fast heartbeat with chest pain or difficulty breathing then it’s time to call 911 and get emergency medical help.

People with a past history of asthma, COPD and young kids are at the greatest risk of developing complications from smoke inhalations. The good news is there are ways to prevent smoke inhalation and support your lungs naturally to prevent or ease symptoms.

Preventing Exposure

Stay inside: although indoor air quality is usually WORSE than outdoor air, during heavy wildfires the thick dark ash that fills the air outside can wreak havoc on your lungs. Stay inside with the doors and windows closed.

Run your home’s air conditioner with a CLEAN air filter

Running your air-conditioner so that it re-circulates in the house is a good idea. Make sure you have a clean air filter on your air-conditioning unit so that you get the maximum effectiveness and filtration capabilities.

Try a HEPA purifier in your home

HEPA or High Efficiency Particulate Air purifiers can be purchased as portable home appliances that function to filter and recirculate clean air inside your house. True HEPA filters must be certified by the United States Department of Energy and require the air filter to remove 99.97% of particles that have a size of 0.3 µm. Smaller units can be purchased for each room as low as $50. For those with allergies, a HEPA filter is a great way to reduce air contamination inside your home during high pollen season as well as during wildfire season.

If you must go outside, wear a particle mask

The United States Federal Government recommends respirator masks labeled N95 or N100 for protection against fine particulate matter such as ash but its important to realize that these masks do not filter out the toxic gases given off by the fire. Carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and acrolein gases all go right through particle masks. When choosing a mask, pick one that is secured around the head with two straps that fits over your mouth snug. Surgical and dust masks won’t filter out the fine ash particles in the smoke so be sure to use the correct mask. Above all, stay alert for the symptoms of smoke inhalation and deadly carbon monoxide poisoning.

Follow this link for a Govt PDF on picking out a particle mask.

Multnomah Falls Fires Oregon Eagle Creek
Photo by Tristan Fortsch via KATU News. Image of Eagle Creek Fire taken from Washington side of Bonneville Dam on Monday, Sept. 4, 2017.

Natural Recommendations for Respiratory Support

The other way to help deal with smoke in the air is to do what we can to support the body’s immune system and ease the strain that smoky air can put on the respiratory and immune systems. Here are a few ways that I recommend for my patients to help with respiratory health at home.

Reduce indoor air pollutants

Pet hair and dander should be kept at a minimum to reduce load of irritant exposure indoors. Make sure to bathe and brush out your cats and dogs, wash all bedding and clothing. It’s a good idea to clean all dusty surfaces and vacuum with a HEPA-filtered vacuum. Also, it’s worth considering the removal of things like artificial fragrances found in candles and air fresheners from the home. Often times if your lungs are already irritated from the outside smoke, adding other indoor perfumes and other irritating inhalants can compound the amount your lungs needs to filter out. For fresh natural ideas that are easier on the body, try doing a stove-top potpourri using lemon and rosemary to slowly simmer over low heat to give your house a fresh scent. My favorite natural home fragrance alternative is using a few drops of my favorite essential oils in a cold-water diffuser. My favorite lung support essential oils are peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus, thyme, and lemon. Mix and match to total 5-6 drops in 4 ounces of water.

Use a sinus rinse or Neti pot

Smoke and ash accumulate in the sinuses with very little exposure. One way to cleanse your respiratory system is to use a nasal rinse or a neti pot to wash out air pollutants and cleanse gentle and easily irritated mucosal tracts. You can find a sinus rinse kit at any pharmacy or health store. Add a mixture package of salt and baking soda; they usually sell these at a local grocery or drugstore. It is usually in a 3:1 teaspoon ratio of salt to baking soda. Nasal washes are a drug-free way to treat symptoms of sinus congestion or allergy-related symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and dry nasal passages.

Use herbs and antioxidants to support your lungs and sinuses

Take Vitamin C: Vitamin C has been shown to stabilize mast cell production and capillary leakage often seen in people with asthma, allergies and exposure to smoke and chemicals. Vitamin C is often low in people who smoke and have chronic lung conditions, and research is showing that vitamin C given intravenously may have a protective effect in these same people and can even be used in helping lung cancer patients tolerate chemotherapy with fewer side effects.

Drink Tea or steam inhale with Thyme

The cooking herb thyme (thymus vulgaris) found in most household kitchens is an excellent herb for the respiratory tract. It is ant-microbial, anti-viral and anti-fungal and has an affinity for the mucosa tract of the nose, throat and lungs. Thyme is also an excellent expectorant can reduce and clear phlegm out of the nasal and sinus pathways.
Checkout this easy recipe for a thyme and peppermint (Mentha piperita) steam bath to ease lungs and bronchial tubes that are irritated from smoke or infection. You can also drink thyme as a tea, place 1 sprig of thyme or a teaspoon of dried thyme in a loose-leaf tea holder. Pour boiling water over and let it sit covered for 10 minutes. Wait until cooled and sip slowly. You can also add a drop of honey or a lemon wedge for flavor.

Drink Water

It may seem obvious, but in emergency situations where people are at high levels of stress and exertion, proper hydration is crucial. Drinking plenty of water helps your body detox and clear out lung pollutants from the respiratory tract by thinning mucus and flushing lymphatic tissue.
Be safe during Oregon’s wildfire season. Watch the local news to be aware of evacuation warnings and highway closures. Most of all take care of each other, check-in on friends and family and fellow Oregonians living close to forests and fire zones and make sure they have all the help they need evacuating safely. Sending you clean air thoughts and deep cleansing breaths!

IF you’d like to schedule an appointment with me to discuss respiratory health or anything else, please contact me here: (Naturopathic Doctor in Portland) to schedule your appointment today.

Yours in health,
Dr. Danielle Smith Anderson, ND, LAc.