BUFFALO, N.Y. – With smoke from the Canadian wildfires entering our region and lingering this week, Western New York and much of the Eastern seaboard is experiencing reduced air quality as a result.

Sanjay Sethi, MD, division chief of Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine at UBMD Internal Medicine and the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the University at Buffalo, explains why the wildfires affect air quality and how it impacts people, especially those with preexisting lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Dr. Sethi is also a professor and assistant vice president for health sciences, as well as deputy director for UB’s Clinical & Translational Science Institute and director of the Clinical Research Office.

What are the wildfires doing to the air?
Wildfires affect air quality by adding particulate matter, ozone and other gases into the air, all of which make air quality worse. The Air Quality Index (AQI) takes into account all these pollutants, and if it exceeds 100, short term health effects are likely and precautions need to be taken.

Why is it affecting people? What will people notice?
The poor air quality can cause inflammation in the airways and can increase the chance of getting a respiratory infection. Though this can happen with everyone, the biggest concern is for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma and COPD, as they already have inflammation in the airways and are more prone to respiratory infections.

There is some evidence that poor air quality like this may increase the risk of cardiovascular events, too, so individuals with heart disease also need to be careful.

People without underlying health conditions may experience eye irritation, and, if they exercise outside, they may notice they cannot do as much. Those with underlying lung conditions could end up with a flare up (exacerbation) of their asthma or COPD requiring treatment.

What symptoms should people be looking out for?
There are several potential symptoms of lung or heart condition flare-ups, which include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Cough
  • Phlegm production
  • Chest discomfort or pain
  • Fever

If you experience any severe shortness of breath or chest pains, please call 9-1-1 or proceed to your nearest emergency department.

What should people be doing this week to limit the effects?
Watch the AQI. If there is an alert, limit time outside, especially activity with exertion.

Wearing a tight-fitting mask outdoors can also reduce exposures. N95s or KN95s are ideal but any mask can help mitigate the effects.

When indoors, keep the windows closed; using an air cleaner (air purifier) with a HEPA filter can also help.

Who is most at risk of being affected by the reduced air quality?
Those with underlying lung problems, such as asthma and COPD, and those with heart conditions are most at-risk. Care should be taken to reduce exposure by elderly individuals and the very young.

For people who already have respiratory issues, what should they be doing differently this week?
They have to be the most vigilant about the precautions outlined above. If needed, they can use their rescue inhaler more frequently. If they feel worse and the rescue inhaler does not do the trick, they should call their doctor.

For those who may not have AC units, what can they do to quell the impact?
If people need to cool their homes while the smoke and haze is still in the area, try to limit the opening of windows and doors. Using air cleaners with HEPA filters can also help, though they can be cost-prohibitive.