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Wildfires often cast ash and other irritants into the air, which may cause breathing problems for children, especially those with underlying respiratory problems. In this article, pediatric pulmonologists at Children's Hospital Colorado's Breathing Institute provide insight and advice on wildfire smoke inhalation.
Wildfire smoke is different than a smoke you would inhale from a close fire because of the particulate matter in the smoke. We see most health effects in patients with a predisposition to respiratory problems, in the young and in the elderly.
Of those that have respiratory problems, patients with asthma are most common, and can have more symptoms if exposed to the particulate matter. In this case, they need to use their rescue medications more frequently.
Wildfire smoke can persist for days or even months, depending on the extent of the wildfire. Although the air may look clear, it may have particulate matter that can make asthma worse or trigger an attack.
Most of the time we worry about prolonged asthma attacks. During wildfires, these attacks can last longer than they normally would. If someone is having an asthma attack due to high smoke exposure from the outdoors, we recommend that they try to stay indoors. If they must go outdoors, they should use their rescue medications prior to going outside. If outdoors, they should try to limit the amount of vigorous activity.
To see if a child is having problems breathing, observe if they are breathing fast; in smaller children, look for their ribs sucking in (called retraction).
With the dense smoke, anyone can start coughing and wheezing and have problems, whether or not they have an underlying respiratory problem.
If they notice:
There aren't any good over-the-counter medications for exposure to smoke from a wildfire. The most important thing is to try to clear the secretions from your lungs, which your lungs will normally do. Keeping well hydrated is important, in that it keeps the mucus in your lungs thinner so they can clear out the secretions.
If you are concerned about your child's breathing and would like to speak to a nurse, call Children's Colorado's ParentSmart Healthline at 720-777-0123; the line is staffed by nurses 24/7. In case of emergency, call 911.